With Cyient Solutions and Systems (CSS) on Tuesday announcing its first ever sale of SpyLite mini unmanned aerial systems (mini-UAS) to the military, the Indian Army has begun acquiring the urgently needed surveillance capability of being able to look down at a combat zone from the sky.
In border flashpoints like Doklam, or in regular encounters with armed militants in Kashmir, the army has functioned without the essential ability to quickly put “eyes in the sky” to look beyond the nearest hill, or treeline, or clump of buildings. Instead, soldiers have had to wait for a helicopter to reach the site, or even longer for fighter reconnaissance missions or satellite photos.
Meanwhile, other major armies have inducted man-portable, mini-UAS (also called unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs) years ago. India inducted the Israeli Searcher and Heron UAVs in the early 2000s, but those are larger UAVs that operate from an airfield, not with forward infantry detachments. The navy is exploring the purchase of large, long-endurance Sea Guardian UAVs from the US. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is developing the indigenous Rustom UAV. But frontline infantry troops still do not have dedicated mini-UAVs that they can launch and use.
Late last year, the army floated a tender for 600 mini-UAVs for an estimated Rs 10 billion. With that tender having made scant headway, the Northern Command — which conducts counter-militant and counter-infiltration operations in Kashmir in addition to guarding hundreds of kilometres of border with Pakistan and China — has gone in for SpyLite mini-UAVs under the “special financial powers” of the army commander.
CSS is a Hyderabad-based joint venture between Indian company Cyient and the well-reputed Israeli defence firm BlueBird Aero Systems. It was incorporated in April.
Neither the military nor CSS is divulging how many SpyLite UAS the army has bought, or the price paid. N J Joseph, who heads CSS, is only willing to reveal that this was a competitive procurement, and that SpyLite was the only UAS that met all the army’s requirements and passed the demanding trials at altitudes above 5,000 metres.
“Taking off from very high altitude in extreme weather conditions, the SpyLite flew over the high mountainous landscape, performing all its missions successfully,” stated a CSS press release on Tuesday.
The SpyLite mini-UAS weighs just 9.5 kg and its rail launcher is carried between two infantry soldiers. When an operation starts, and a “look down” is needed, the local commander can launch a UAS within minutes. Its electric motor carries it to 3,000 feet above the surrounding terrain, from where a video camera and infra-red sensors beam back high-definition images in real time.
The launching unit remotely controls the flying vehicle, as well as the sensors it carries. After a mission that could last for up to four hours, the SpyLite flies back and lands using a parachute. If communication and control links get broken, the UAS has a “return home” facility that guides it back to where it was launched.
For now, the SpyLite remains an almost entirely Israeli system, which has served the Israeli army for a decade. However, Joseph says the CSS joint venture will co-develop customised payloads for military and civilian users, and incrementally indigenise manufacturing at Hyderabad. He estimates the indigenous content will grow to 40-50 per cent.
Just days ago, the army floated a request for information (RFI) for 75 mini RPAs (remotely piloted aircraft) that are specially configured for high altitudes. The RFI says a formal tender can be expected by April 2019. Meanwhile seven Indian firms have responded to the tender for 600 mini-UAS that the army floated last year. However, as long as these procurements drag on, firms like CSS, which have developed and tested UAS, can continue to address this urgent army requirement.