Remote Sensing technologies are providing intelligent data interpretation and analysis capabilities not only for various industries such as utility, energy, transportation, mining, water and construction etc, but also for real-time disaster management !

Akshay Patil, our next pathbreaker, Remote Sensing Scientist at AiDash, formulates viable solutions to broadly relevant problems using satellite data and machine learning.

Akshay talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his work on meteor science using ground radars that fuelled his interest in earth observation, and his PhD (Remote Sensing) on snow melting and its accumulation in the Indian Himalayas which is critical for water resource planning

For students, the diversity of geo-spatial technologies is huge and so are the challenges. But there is no greater thrill than getting the opportunity to work on these problems and create solutions that can make life easy for people across all strata. 

Akshay, can you tell us about your background?

I grew up in a town situated on the borders of three states (Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh) at the feet of the Satpuda mountain ranges. The area is predominantly thriving on income generated through agricultural activities. My father is a retired professor, and my mother is a housewife. I have two sisters who are medical doctors.

I have always enjoyed cricket and have played at the district level. I spend my leisure time playing table tennis, badminton, chess, carrom, and billiards. I am also inclined towards music and have developed an interest in classic western country music. A few of my favourite artists are Nat King Cole, Merle Haggard, John Denver, Bob Dylan, and Jimmy Fontana.

I was always fascinated by the universe, stars, and the mysteries beyond our perceivable realm. This interest got a boost when I got access to television channels like Discovery and Nat Geo in the early nineties. I was a science student and had my early education (till 10th) in my regional language (Marathi). I got introduced to English in class 5th.  

What did you do for graduation/ post-graduation?

My two sisters are medical doctors, and continuing this tradition, my initial goal was to get a seat in a medical college for MBBS. I dropped this idea in 10th grade because I was not interested in the medical field; I was not excited about becoming a medical doctor. After class 6th, I developed an interest in mathematics and physics, and started exploring career options in Engineering. I got a bachelor’s degree in Electronics and Telecommunication (E&TC). Following this, I completed my Master of Technology (MTech) in E&TC, and those two years shaped my career and future choices.

What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

Some of my key influencers are scientists, physicists, and visionaries like Stephen Hawking, Nikola Tesla, Benjamin Franklin, Einstein, Alan Turing, APJ Abdul Kalam, Vikram Sarabhai, Carl Sagan, Issac Asimov, and Richard Feynman. I highly regard the work of modern-day scientists like Joycelyn Bell Burnell, Brian Edward Cox, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Brian Greene.

Dr. Akshay Malhotra (my master’s thesis advisor) is my mentor, whose contribution to shaping my career is immense. I would also like to mention the contribution of my PhD thesis advisors – Prof. Gulab Singh, Prof. Avik Bhattacharya, Prof. Y. S. Rao, and Prof. Christoph Rudiger (Bureau of Meteorology, Melbourne).

A key event in my career was my master’s program, where I got an opportunity to work on meteor science using ground radars. During this period, I was fortunate to meet Astrophysicist Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967.  I followed my childhood interests and got selected for DRDO and DST projects as a Junior Research Fellow (JRF) at IIT Bombay. After that, I got admission and a scholarship to the IITB-Monash Research Academy for their joint PhD program. This was the turning point in my career so far.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I completed my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in succession and was already planning to pursue a PhD in remote sensing. 

Between my master’s and doing a JRF (Junior Research Fellowship) at IITB, I was an Assistant Professor in the E&TC department for eight months. I taught courses in Antenna and Wave Propagation and image/signal processing there.

My initial thought was to continue research in meteor science with radar technology. However, while exploring my options, I came across a department in IITB (CSRE) that dedicatedly works on vast areas of remote sensing. I got selected for a JRF program and started working on more applied themes in remote sensing. As a JRF, I worked on DRDO and DST-funded projects and was assigned to remote sensing-based algorithm development tasks. I got exposure to fieldwork in the Indian Himalayas during my tenure as a JRF at IITB, which was exciting. 

I finally decided to get a PhD in Remote Sensing and Geospatial Engineering focusing on Earth Observation (EO) satellite data.   

I received a scholarship/fellowship for the IITB-Monash Research Academy PhD program that allows a student to visit Monash University (for a year or two) in Melbourne, Australia, and complete a part of the research with international exposure.

I worked on snow water equivalent retrieval in the Indian Himalayas. Studying snow melting and its accumulation is critical for water resource planning, spatially in the region that relies on water supply from glaciers and seasonal snow. Snow also acts as a water storage entity that delivers the water in the summer season due to melting. Accurate information on the volume of snow accumulation is crucial for avoiding disasters (avalanches and flash floods). Mountainous regions experiencing heavy snowfall rely on hydropower plants that run on snowmelt water to generate electricity.

Collecting data over vast regions, rugged topography, and inaccessible areas is a very laborious task and cannot be repeated frequently. Remote sensing is a powerful tool that allows frequent and repetitive observations of any part of the Earth. Such data is captured using Earth Observation (EO) satellites and is widely used in near-real-time decision-making. With AI, and advancements in computer hardware (offering high computation power), remote sensing data has shown great potential to solve problems relevant in all sectors, like- utilities, transportation, mining, water management, urban planning, forest health assessment, climate research, weather forecasting, real-time monitoring (defense), and many more. 

GIS is an equally important system wherein data is represented most intuitively to the end user. GIS is a system that creates, manages, analyzes, and maps all types of data and helps perceive patterns and relationships in the data concerning geographic context. GIS and remote sensing will be fascinating career options in the future as many private players and companies are entering this space. Someone can consider getting higher degrees in such a domain.

Many opportunities for international exposure are available in higher studies. I received the IEEE international travel grant twice for conference presentations in Spain and Japan during my tenure as a PhD student. My advisor also encouraged me for local conferences and provided the required funding. 

I joined as a remote sensing scientist at AIDASH in March 2021 and received my degree later that year.

I am fortunate to know some great people at all levels during my PhD journey, and using their expertise/experience has shaped my career. 

How did you get your first break?

I got my first job through networking. During the lockdown, I constantly looked for opportunities in my research domain. This helped me build a network (through LinkedIn and Twitter), and I used to send daily inquiries to at least five professors for Postdoc positions. Eventually, I got a couple of good responses from the University of Gothenburg, Waterloo, Calgary, and the Germany remote sensing centre. Meanwhile, I collaborated with some highly experienced professionals in a similar domain. Dr. Damien (from Belgium) recommended my profile to AIDASH.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

There are many challenges when you commit four-to-five years to a PhD. Some of them are faced by almost all students, and a few are specific to a person. 

Being involved in research all the time is a big challenge. Sometimes It can be consuming and frustrating. I overcome this with frequent breaks by taking time off and spending time on other activities like sports, entertainment, travel, and family. The most effective way to overcome boredom is to interact with fellow PhD students, discuss the issues, and solve them positively without being pulled back by them. A positive environment in the lab also boosts interest, and constant encouragement from a mentor is required throughout the PhD; hence choosing an advisor holds utmost importance in the PhD than any other factor.

COVID Lockdown was an unplanned event that occurred in everyone’s life. During the lockdown, I could not utilize the lab resources and expert opinions, which took away valuable time during my tenure. It was the last year of my PhD, and I was about to wrap it up. I took it positively and worked on compiling my work systematically. The result was four publications, the thesis defense, and a job in eight months. The pandemic did not pull me back. Despite being affected by COVID, and admitted to hospital, I achieved my goals. 

Where do you work now? Tell us about your current role

I work as a remote sensing scientist (R&D, Data Science) at AIDASH. AIDASH helps create solutions through multidisciplinary expertise and putting all minds together to provide a complete solution that can add value in real time. In AIDASH, I work on my dream ideas and execute them with other professionals with complementary expertise.

Core industries have billions of distributed assets and spend hundreds of billions of dollars on operations, maintenance, and sustainability. In fact, in the U.S. alone, power utilities spend $200 billion annually on operations and maintenance. But core industries lose billions of dollars annually due to complex factors affecting these distributed assets. This is where AIDASH comes into the picture. AIDASH is a SaaS company that helps industries become more resilient, efficient, and sustainable through the power of satellites and AI. With access to a continual, near real-time stream of critical data, utilities, energy, transportation, water and wastewater, and other core industries can make more informed decisions and build optimized long-term plans, all while reducing costs, improving reliability, and achieving sustainability goals.

I work on various problems – vegetation management, wildfire risk assessment, disaster management, flood detection, sustainability, biodiversity, and many more. As a scientist and expert in the field, my role is to assess the problem statement, check its feasibility, and then create a plan of execution to achieve the target. I work with data scientists, analysts, and SDEs

What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?

Programming skills are a must nowadays. One should be able to code in open-source platforms and should leverage the benefits of cloud computing (AWS)

I deal with large datasets and hence require expertise in coding to perform the tasks automatically and recursively. Programming allows me to perform several experiments in a limited amount of time.

I acquire this skill set through online courses- Udemy, Coursera, and free resources. 

I also take expert opinions from my peers to find the best resource to enhance my programming skills.

What’s a typical day like?

I usually get to work on a new problem almost every day. There is much excitement at work. The geospatial world has opened a lot of new businesses and solutions in the market, leading to opportunities never seen before. I dedicate time after working hours for skills development. 

What is it you love about this job? 

One good thing about my current job is that I can use the knowledge acquired during my PhD and not completely shift from my earlier work, which I suppose, frequently happens with PhDs. Generally, as you go up the ladder in terms of degrees, the opportunities reduce as you become an expert in a specialised skill set. There is an opportunity at all levels; one must put in constant efforts to get there, which I did. 

How does your work benefit society? 

I contribute to solving real-time problems like flood mapping, wildfire risk assessment, and disaster management. As a scientist, I look at the variables causing these calamities and predict them. During any disaster, my work helps local bodies promptly respond to situations and support distributed asset companies by providing intelligent data interpretation and analysis based on remote sensing and AI. 

In a sense, my work is more relatable to society. Urban expansion, heat islands, water logging in cities, and frequent floods due to infrastructure failure can all be studied using remote sensing and AI. I get to work on these problems and create a solution that can make life easy for people across all strata. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

My work on radar observation of meteors is very close to my heart. I closely worked with NARL (ISRO), Gadanki. This work built the foundation of my research career. I learned how one should approach a problem and execute it systematically. I met the Astrophysicist Prof. Yashwant Gupta (Centre Director NCRA, TIFR) during this work and exchanged research ideas. I also interacted with Engineering leads responsible for building the Ooty telescope and Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT). Dr. Akshay Malhotra, with whom I began my career in research, provided me with international exposure by collaborating with scientist Prof. John D. Matthews from Penn State University (USA). 

A meteor is an atmospheric phenomenon that occurs when an extraterrestrial object (meteoroid, space debris) enters the Earth’s atmosphere. When a meteoroid enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it colloids with the surrounding air molecules. Due to the resulting friction, the temperature of the meteoroid starts to increase. The temperature continues to rise as the meteoroid descends toward the earth. When this temperature reaches about 2000K, surface particles start evaporating from the meteoroid. This process is called “ablation”. The energy from meteoroids may be released in the form of light. A streak of light is then observed in the sky, and this visual phenomenon is known as a meteor or shooting star. The backscattered (signal traveling in the transmitter’s direction) signal from these meteoroids, as sensed by radar, is known as “echo”. In the process of ablation, a meteoroid loses its mass, and most of the meteoroid completely evaporates and is thus unable to reach on earth’s surface. If a meteoroid is big enough to survive the journey through the earth’s atmosphere, it strikes the earth’s surface and is known as a “meteorite”. 

When such big meteoroids land on Earth, they create giant “craters”. The spot in the sky from which a meteoroid appears to come is known as “meteor radiant”. A meteor shower has a single radiant i.e. all the meteoroids are coming from the same direction. On the other hand, non-shower meteors come from a random direction (different radiant). High-Power Large Aperture (HPLA) radars can sense very small particles known as micrometeorites. It is now well known that annual mass flux due to non-shower meteors (sporadic meteors) is much more than due to shower meteors.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Stick to the basics: hard work, perseverance, and intelligent decision-making. There should be a justified reason for doing anything in life. Don’t conclude until you provide yourself ample time to work on it. This applies to both personal and professional life. 

There is a career option in every area- science, commerce, arts, literature, music, geography, languages, social science, economics, and many more, which I have not listed. Make sure that you are interested enough to continue it throughout your life. And think of long-term goals rather than dwelling on short benefits and perks.

Whatever you do, excel in it. Try to learn every day, and don’t be stagnant. Invest in skills – it provides a better return than anything else out there. 

You spend almost half of your life doing the job, so make sure it is something that adds value to your life in terms of satisfaction and joy. 

Good financial planning is key to success, and every person should learn some basics of economics. The earlier you start, the more the benefits. 

Be thankful for what is served on your plate and show gratitude to those helping you through life. A good character is a great virtue. Embrace it! A good deed always comes back- gratitude reciprocates.  

Sound guidance and mentoring are crucial to success. I can say this from my personal experience. Sometimes you underestimate your potential, and there should be someone who can give an initial push and boost your confidence, which can be a game changer.

Future Plans?

I am in a great phase of my life and recently got blessed with a baby girl. She has turned my life 360 degrees. I am calmer and more composed than ever. I have a great companion- my wife and a supporting family. With this, I think the possibilities are endless.

I will continue my research career and try to solve more relevant problems which can benefit society and humanity along with my professional growth.