Breaking new ground

Print edition : November 20, 2009

A LANDSLIDE AT Tangni in Uttarakhand. One of the projects of the DTRL covers landslide-prone areas in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir.-DTRL

"WE are proud of our laboratory and the excellent work we are doing for the Army and the Directorate General of the Border Roads Organisation [BRO]," said Major General Umang Kapoor, Director, Defence Terrain Research Laboratory (DTRL), a unit of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).

Situated adjacent to the majestic Meltcalfe House in New Delhi, the building that houses the DTRL looks a trifie utilitarian. However, as Maj. Gen. Kapoor and Sunil Dhar, Joint Director, DTRL, talked about how terrain could be a potent weapon in modern warfare, the importance of the work being done by the DTRL unfolded with clarity.

Said Maj. Gen. Kapoor: "With knowledge of the terrain, you can force the enemy into a certain area. A lot of deception can take place with the help of terrain. An Army commander, by knowing the terrain, can work out whether he should attack, defend or move forward." Knowledge of India's varied terrain, aided by images taken by remote-sensing satellites, shapes the Army's logistics to a large extent.

The DTRL's origin dates back to 1964 when a Terrain Evaluation Cell was set up as a unit of the DRDO. The cell's objectives were to develop techniques needed for evaluating terrain and assessing the mobility potential in inaccessible areas. It became a full-pledged laboratory in 1981, and was renamed the Defence Terrain Research Laboratory.

Said Sunil Dhar: "Our mission is to become technologically self-reliant in using high-resolution terrain-intelligence products. This will involve creating and updating thematic maps and terrain intelligence reports for the services."

MAJOR GENERAL UMANG Kapoor, Director, DTRL.-R.V. MOORTHY

An important work done by the scientists is the preparation of landslide zonation maps.

"When there is a landslide, we should know what can be skirted and what cannot be. This leads us to the question whether it is possible to have an early warning system in these areas," said Sunil Dhar.

The scientists are now working on a project called Unique Research Undertaken for Systems Development for Landslides Warning and Terrain Intelligence (URUSWATI). It involves mapping landslide-prone zones for the BRO. This is the second such project the DTRL is doing for the BRO. The first one covered the National Highways (NH) in the northeastern region and the North Sikkim Highway and provided the BRO with atlases.

The current project will cover landslide-prone areas in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir. The DTRL will provide landslide atlases for seven roads in this region. The information will include data, digital and otherwise, on landslide zonations so that relief can be provided when landslides occur.

Landslides occur in India only in three areas - the Himalayas, the Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats. Of these, only the Himalayas are strategically important.

In the first phase of URUSWATI, the DTRL covered the Himalayas up to Sikkim. It is now preparing landslide hazard zonation maps for the remaining areas, in north Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir. "[The maps] will show the severity of the landslides - whether it is critical, less critical, or poor. Based on these zonations, the BRO will plan roads," said Sunil Dhar, who is also the Project Director of URUSWATI.

These zonations acquire importance in the context of India's plan to build a 1,200-km trans-Himalayan highway from Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh to Kashmir. This highway is strategically important because it will be close to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, China-occupied Kashmir and the Pakistan border and will enable movement of men and weapons. Some of the highways have already been zoned. They include the NH 31A, which leads to Sikkim; the NH 21, which is the lifeline of the Spiti valley in Himachal Pradesh; and the NH 1A, which connects Jammu and Srinagar.

AT THE DTRL in New Delhi, generating a Digital Elevation Model of desert sand dunes.-R.V. MOORTHY

"We have taken a landslide on the highway between Rishikesh and Badrinath as a representative one to develop an early warning system, which is the first in India," Sunil Dhar said. The concept has already been proven in the Himalayas in Sikkim. It will have three components: (1) instruments to acquire data periodically on landslides; (2) measurement of the threshold values of rainfall, the occurrence of earthquakes, the rate of deforestation, the periodicity of landslides, and so on, which will be transmitted to the DTRL for modelling; and (3) suggestions on the measures to be taken to control these landslides.

The warning system will be useful in areas such as Nasri on the NH 1A, which is perennially prone to landslides. Nasri first experienced a landslide about 200 years ago, and landslides continue to plague the area to date, jamming the highway and the bypass. Some landslides lie dormant for several years.

"We are collecting historical data about the periodicity of these landslides so that we can create models of them and suggest measures to arrest them. We can erect a breast wall or form a stream so that water passes through [without eroding the hillside], we can plant quick-growing trees that will have deep roots, etc..," said Sunil Dhar.

Mats made of textiles can be introduced into the earth so that the soil will not erode. Long nails made of iron and fibre can be driven into weak zones.

An interesting phenomenon no- ticed in landslide-prone areas in Sikkim is that in places where the Thar plant grows, the landslides did not recur.

The biggest project that the DTRL has bagged so far is the Geospatial Intelligence Mission (GIM). The Rs.25- crore project, which is being executed by B.G. Prusty, a scientist, will gather terrain intelligence for the Army using images sent by spacecraft and the digital elevation model (DEM). The DEM will provide information on the height of hills, the depth of valleys, and so on.

The GIM will enable automatic extraction of data on man-made and natural terrain features, including roads, habitations, forests, hills and rivers. Flood mapping for strategic perception and geo-visualisation will also be done. "We are developing two software systems for this - Vasundhara GIS and Dhara Globe," said Prusty.

Visualisation and Analysis Systems for Terrain Utilisation (VASTU) is a project that the DTRL scientist S.P. Mishra has completed. In order to visualise data of the Army or the DTRL, the Army wanted the DTRL to create a Google Maps-like application that would not compromise on secrecy.

"Suppose I want to know how many villages are there on a 100-km stretch of a road, it is not available in Google [Maps]. We should also be able to search certain features, including similarly spelt names," Mishra said.

So the DTRL developed a search engine that was capable of working on the DTRL's own data and doing spatial analysis, and had capabilities similar to the Google search engine. It was customised for the Army. "This was a challenging task and we did it on a war footing, in nine months. The Army is happy and wants us to do an advanced version called VASTU 2," Mishra said.

Another project, completed by the team headed by M.K. Kalra, is called Visualisation with Enhanced Digital Elevation Model and Soil Profile Analysis for MBT Arjun Simulator (VEDSAR).

This related to how the main battle tank Arjun performed in different kinds of terrain, including desert sands and riverine areas. The project was done through the DEM using Cartosat-1A data and took into account the response of the soil to the tanks in different kinds of terrain. The Central Building Research Institute in Roorkee helped the DTRL to execute this project.

On the basis of the success of this project, Kalra will start a new project named Vehicular Interaction with Soil for Trafficability Assessment and Route-decision Aid (VISTAR). This system will come up with maps that provide the Army with information on the shortest possible distance between two points, the kind of obstacles present on the terrain, the elevation of certain terrain features such as hills, and if there is loose soil, how many tanks can pass over it, and so on.

THAR, named after the Thar desert, is a project that the Army has agreed in principle that DTRL scientists should do. The aim is to develop a system that generates a DEM of the sand dunes of the desert and locates groundwater.

"We are interacting with the Army and we have demonstrated our capability in these areas. Future warfare will be based on DEMs. Cruise missiles will fiy on elevation models. So knowledge of DEMs is crucial," said V.K. Panchal, Associate Director, DTRL, who heads the project.

A nascent but innovative project, which will be completed in five years, is the System for Information Extraction for Spatial Terrain Intelligence (SRISTI). The project demanded computer software that was not commercially available.

P. Roy Chowdhury, a scientist, said the Army approached the DTRL to provide them with information on certain features because the information was not available in the market. For instance, the depth of water at a given location, which cannot be measured using space-borne data. This will be done by using simple and generic software solutions. "The inputs include space-borne data plus ground truths," he said.

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