IIT Madras provides base for space tech startups

IIT Madras provides base for space tech startups

Agnibaan, an innovative two-stage orbital launch vehicle powered by India's first patented single-piece 3D-printed semi-cryogenic engine developed and incubated at IIT Madras, was launched on 30 May 2024. This is a significant milestone for the country's space eco-system.

The state-of-the-art launch vehicle paves the way for continued missions for India and also makes the country a commercial hub in the space sector.

The launch vehicle has been developed by Agnikul, a startup in space-technology. Agnikul is incubated at the Incubation Cell of IIT Madras (a TBI supported by the Department of Science and Technology) and showcased at the Startup Expo during the Startup Utsav of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) in August 2022. The startup works closely with the National Centre for Combustion Research and Development (NCCRD) at IIT Madras which is supported by the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

Supported by DST, NCCRD develops cutting-edge capabilities in combustion research. It is the world's largest combustion research centre working on automotive, thermal power and aerospace propulsion, fire research and microgravity combustion. In addition to academic research and training, NCCRD works closely with industrial and R&D organisations.

Working closely with NCCRD, the Chennai-based startup has developed several technologies that can improve the reliability of space engines and speed up their manufacturing, making it simpler to organise space missions. The startup has successfully launched its first inaugural mission – Agnibaan SORTED. Agnibaan SORTED (Agnibaan Sub-Orbital Technology Demonstrator) is a single-stage vehicle powered by a single semi-cryogenic pressure-fed engine that has been used for Agnibaan. The attempt was made from SDSC SHAR, India's first private launchpad.

NCCRD supported by DST has been the training ground for Agnikul where they learnt the intricacies of rocket making and this helped the startup to explore the technology at an early stage. Pravartak Technologies from IIT Madras, another Technology Innovation Hub (TIH) funded by DST, became their partner for developing and commercialising technologies for space and deep space.

The opening up of the space market by the government to private players created an opportunity in the sector. They used indigenously developed technologies to start manufacturing engines at the company's additive manufacturing facility at IIT Madras Research Park, popularly called Agnikul Rocket Factory – 01, which was inaugurated in 2022.

Agnikul's breakthrough achievement is the engine that integrates different components. This feature makes it unique. It is manufactured from high-grade aerospace materials that make it more reliable. This also reduces the realisation time and facilitates faster manufacturing compared to conventionally manufactured engines.

DST's TBI supported startup set up India's first private launchpad with Mission Control Centre at Sriharikota Range. The planning, design and execution of the launchpad was done completely in-house.

Additionally, the autopilot software developed by the company ensures that the vehicle remains on the mission path despite all external pressures, which is crucial for any mission.

The launch vehicle, Agnibaan is India's first launch vehicle that feeds propellants through a powerful and compact electric drive. The in-house developed high-speed motor controller can deliver high power at high frequency and the noise generated by the high voltage variations is reduced by proper shielding and earthing.

Various technologies, including the world's first single-piece 3D printed engine and configurable vehicles, have made launch costs similar across the spectrum of payload masses – from 30 kg to 300 kg.

The launch of Agnibaan Sub-orbital Technology Demonstrator by a DST-TBI supported startup has helped in achieving world firsts with a single piece patented rocket engine, India’s first semi-cryogenic engine flight, first flight with Ethernet-based avionics infrastructure, and is credited as India’s first controlled ascent flight.


Pavita Jones