How a 250-year-old government department is digitising Indian maps using drones

Digital India?
Digital India?
Image: AP Photo/Kevin Frayer
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The Survey of India is among the oldest institutions in the country.

Set up during the British colonial rule in 1767, and today under India’s ministry of science and technology, the agency has been in charge of mapping the country’s vast and diverse regions for centuries.

However, over the years, its maps haven’t aged all that gracefully. After lagging in digitisation, it finally launched an online map portal in 2017. But the digitised collection has a primitive scale of 1:50,000—one centimetre on the map reflects 50,000 centimetres on the ground.

As India’s economy grows at a rapid pace, the need for infrastructure development is also rising. And the ball is now in the agency’s court to meet this demand with accurate and easily-accessible maps.

Lt Gen Girish Kumar, who heads the Survey of India, spoke with Quartz about the future of mapping and digitisation on the sidelines of GeoSmart India, an event held in New Delhi in February.

Edited excerpts:

How far along is the Survey of India in digitising its collection of maps?

Maps at the scale of 1:50,000 have already been digitised, updated, and transformed on WGS 84 (the modern GPS reference system). The older maps were made on average data, not compatible with modern GPS.

Lieutenant General Girish Kumar
Lieutenant General Girish Kumar
Image: Survey of India

After the national map policy was made in 2005, we are supposed to make two series of maps: the defence series and the open series. We started on the defence series in 2003, and just recently, we have been able to print and digitise all its 4,848 maps and deliver them to the defence forces.

In future, we’ll have maps (in the open series) at the scale of 1:500 to around 1:10,000, because 1:50,000 is very coarse. We are doing projects with various state governments for developing maps on the 1:500 scale. These will form the basis of all planning purposes such as for smart cities.

What are the challenges you’re facing while upgrading and digitising the maps?

In a government setup, yes, there are challenges. Availability of funds has been an issue in the past, but gradually we are managing with the help of the ministry of science & technology.

We are a field organisation, so on the ground, we don’t face any hurdles, because it is our mandate to map every inch of the country. Getting the human talent is a challenge, so for the last one year we have been working on capacity building.

We also need to make the user understand the power and benefits of this data. More and more states need to join in. Land is a subject of state governments in India, and they manage the parcels and properties. The states are the users of these maps. So, if I do it on my own and the state does not want it, then it’s a futile exercise.

Technology is available, processes are available, it’s only that we need to move in a collaborative manner. 

What ongoing projects do you have with the state governments?

We have signed memoranda of understanding with the governments of Maharashtra and Karnataka states. Both the projects cost around Rs70 crore ($10 million). In Karnataka, we are using drones to digitally map five districts at first.

In Maharashtra, we are first mapping the abadi (residential) areas of around 40,000 villages. Every village has agricultural land and abadi areas. Nobody owns property in abadi areas because they had never been mapped before.

We ran a pilot in Maharashtra’s Sonari village. Based on our mapping, the government has already given land rights to the residents.

We are also in conversation with the governments of Haryana and Uttarakhand states. We are close to finalising a Rs150 crore project in Haryana. We will have a time frame of 15 months to map the complete state.

Urban areas have properties, but in rural areas the agricultural land is all divided into “parcels.” Every parcel boundary will also be mapped in Haryana. This has never been done before. So we are gearing up the infrastructure accordingly. With the same resources and at the same pace, you can’t do it. We need to have additional manpower and resources. 

We also started a Rs300 crore project last year for the National Hydrology Project to map the major tributaries of five rivers including the Ganga in Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal states, going up to Bay of Bengal. It is a four-year project, but we are trying to finish it by 2021. 

How are you planning to use drones and other technology in your work?

For high-resolution mapping you need aerial photographs. And aerial photography was only possible through a fixed-wing aircraft, with a camera mounted at the bottom. That was a very lengthy and time-consuming process. It used to take months to get the clearances. And all images would be acquired at once, so getting the images cleared (from India’s ministry of defence) was also time-consuming. Drones will expedite the mapping process entirely. It will be much easier to capture and process the images.

We have been using drones for the last one year. We did a number of projects with the Maharashtra and Karnataka governments.

We were already in the process of acquiring a large number of drones when the directorate general of civil aviation brought out new guidelines, so we had to reissue the tender to comply with these. We are looking to procure 110 drones.

We are also using air-borne lidar (a surveying tool which employs laser sensors). Now we’ll go for drone-mounted lidar. 

Do you agree that there’s a lack of accessibility of maps in India?

After the 2005 policy, a lot of liberalisation has been done. There are certain restrictions, but it’s like following traffic lights. Precautions need to be taken to avoid any untoward incident, whether it’s related to national security or human security. Guidelines are issued keeping this in mind, and maps are given on a need-basis.