India is investing heavily in developing unmanned vehicles — ground, sea and air — as it gears up for a fast-approaching era of soldier-less battlefields despite the current void in policies governing how they will be used.
Government-run labs of the DRDO
(Defence Research and Development Organisation) and National Aeronautics Ltd, along with state-owned defence manufacturer Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, are working on several drone projects, right from vehicles that weigh under a kg to Rustom II, which will have a payload capacity of 350 kg.
The DRDO, which designed the Tejas light combat aircraft
such as Nishant and Lakshya, is putting together a policy document for the year 2020 as well as a more advanced one for 2025, which has laid emphasis on building the country’s drone capabilities. But being a nascent technology, it is also looking at the country’s premier research institutes for talent and new technology.
“We have good capability in terms of software and, with Make in India, several foreign companies are coming in, because of which production capabilities are bound to get developed. Why can’t we put the two together and create UAVs for the air, ground and underwater?” said S Christopher, chairman of the DRDO, at a conference last week. The DRDO
is also working on a series of unmanned vehicles including unmanned combat aircraft, or UCAV, which will be powered by the homegrown Kaveri engine. Similarly, HAL, which is a risk-sharing partner in the development of Rustom II along with the DRDO, is working with the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, for the development of a 10-kg mini-rotary drone. With flight tests conducted successfully, HAL
now plans to scale up the same technology for 50-kg, 200-kg and 500-kg rotary drones, said T Suvarna Raju, chairman of HAL, at the Aero India
event. The plethora of global manufacturers displaying UAVs at Aero India
this year signalled the interest of India’s armed forces to procure these machines. Israel Aerospace Industries, Elbit, Saab, Boeing
and many other smaller players gave a prominent display of their drones, some of which were capable of weaponised warfare. JK Organisation Friday announced its foray into India’s drone market in partnership with Canadian firm MicroPilot. There are commercial sectors that will benefit from this.
Unlike Rustom II, with a wingspan of 20-odd metres, the market for mini-UAVs is huge. However, the market is being held back by the lack of policy governing how drones
can be used, but which should likely be addressed by an upcoming drone policy.
“The demand for mini-UAVs is currently Rs 2,000 crore, but this is really constrained by a lack of clarity on the regulations, which is expected to go away in the next few months. Once that’s behind us, we expect the market to grow by at least three times in the next three years,” said Rajesh Kakkar, chief executive, Global Strategic Technologies Ltd, JK Organisation.
JK’s Deepti Electronics & Electro Optics Pvt Ltd (DELOPT) unit, which currently builds payloads such as cameras for small drones, has partnered Canadian firm MicroPilot to supply the autopilot system for these UAVs. With this, DELOPT hopes to become an even larger supplier of drone ancillaries to the armed forces, paramilitary or police, which are looking to deploy drone platforms built by other manufacturers.
Kakkar says the market for drones
in India could grow by three times in the next three years once the government gives the industry more clarity. For the defence sector, India’s ever-growing need for new fighter aircraft like the LCA and Sukhoi 30 MKI could potentially be offset by the use of UAVs.