“Sona College of Technology, Salem, is today in the sky and in the deep sea,” says Principal SRR Senthil Kumar, proudly describing the work of the engineering college’s Special Electrical and Electronics Drives (SPEED) R&D division as well as its PERT (Power Engineering Research and Testing) centre.

Walking up to the SPEED lab — housed in the old wing of the college — it is hard to imagine that from this two-and-a-half room set up, from where a 12-member team operates, crucial components that powered the Chandrayaan-3 Moon Mission have emerged.

Just a few hundred metres away is the Sona PERT centre from where deep sea mining missions have been powered, literally. “Who knows — after Chandrayaan, we could play a part in Samudrayaan too,” says Senthil Kumar.

It’s quite a possible dream, as he describes how some years ago the Sona College researchers designed and developed a power convertor that was used to power the robots that worked under sea at nearly 5 km depth. “This was used in the Atlantic ocean exploratory mission of the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), wherein a robot was sent under sea to collect samples from the sea bed. Through an umbilical cable, power was passed. The power controlling system, which remained on the surface of the sea on the ship, was designed by us, and we maintained the power supply to control the robot,” he details.

At the SonaSPEED lab, where one of the researchers Alexis Jerat takes us around, there are prototypes of several motors and large posters on the wall. One poster describes the permanent magnet simplex stepper motor used in mixture ratio control at the critical cryogenic or launch stage of the Chandrayan-3 mission.

Sona SPEED created Simplex stepper motors for Chandrayaan-3 mission

Sona SPEED created Simplex stepper motors for Chandrayaan-3 mission

The R&D department of the engineering college which is somewhere between a lab and an enterprise also supplied the 25KW Quadruplex BLDC Motor used in the helicopter hoist for lifting the Reusable Launch Vehicle to 4.5 km altitude and releasing for autonomous landing on the runway at Chitradurga. After showing us the motors, Jerat showed us the testing chamber which is a heavily sanitised area and where you can go in only wearing prescribed clothing.

Chocko Valliappa, CEO, Vee Technologies, the technology firm that was entrusted with manufacturing and quality assurance of the motors by SonaSPEED, and part of the founding family of the Sona College of Technology, describes how back in the day when they wanted to make the motors for ISRO they were laughed at. “Two IITs have failed, are you sure, you can make it? ISRO asked us,” recalls Valliappa. “Our response was — at worst what can happen, we will also fail,” says Valliappa. As it happens, Sona’s SPEED succeeded and then got more orders for gyroscopes, stepper motors and so on. “Since we grandfathered into the programme, ISRO in its tenders now writes ‘Sona quality motors’,” says a proud Valliappa.

Now the college is looking oceanwards, seeing if it can get orders for its motors and power solutions in undersea missions. It sees a sea of opportunity out there.