This could be the best of times for the Union government’s ‘Make in India’ initiative in the highly sensitive defence sector. After a year-long logjam that had held up approvals for industrial licences to manufacture defence equipment, the government has now reportedly resolved the issue, providing big relief to the private sector that is keen on investing in the sector. Under the policy, the government aims to encourage local manufacturing of military aircraft, warships, ammunition and armoured vehicles.
As per reports, the government had stopped issuing licences since June last year due to undisclosed reasons. But now, the home ministry, through a recent notification, has empowered the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion to grant licences under its strict “supervision and control”, say reports. This development might be seen as a big boost to local manufacturing by private companies, but the truth is, several homegrown defence start-ups are already assisting the country’s armed forces in modern warfare.
In strike mode
Let’s say, during a counter-terrorist operation, a soldier wants to see around the corners and shoot at a target without entering the line of fire. Or, the member of a commando team is in need of an in-built video interface on his weapon that would enable his commander to receive real-time video feed of the operation regardless of weather or light conditions.
What do they do? In the first scenario, the soldier can take the help of a small, lightweight thermal imaging device called ‘Arjun’—the soldier can just crouch behind a blockade, stick his weapon over his head and shoot at his target with the same accuracy as if he were taking aim normally.
In the second scenario, the commando can use a dual-sensor thermal weapon called ‘Cobra’. Both Arjun and Cobra have been developed by Tonbo Imaging, a Bengaluru-based maker of advanced night vision systems.
These are but some of the many areas where homegrown defence start-ups such as Tonbo Imaging are working behind the scenes and technologically assisting the men in uniform.
Tonbo Imaging is an offshoot of Sarnoff Corporation, a former subsidiary of American non-profit Stanford Research International, now called SRI International. “In 2008, there was a management buyout of Sarnoff’s India operations and we spun out a standalone company that became Tonbo Imaging,” explains Arvind Lakshmikumar, founder and CEO, Tonbo Imaging.
The company is working with the Indian military and paramilitary forces on a range of programmes. With the Indian military, it’s working on tactical imaging systems for soldiers, night-vision systems for battle tanks, electro-optics and sighting systems for weapon platforms and payloads for unmanned aerial vehicles. To the paramilitary (BSF, CRPF, NSG, etc), it’s supplying various night-vision devices for surveillance and monitoring.
Tonbo recently won a $25-million border surveillance contract in North Africa and Europe (Macedonia border) to deploy electro-optics surveillance systems. The contract was won against international competition from listed companies such as FLIR, Thales and other Israeli bidders. The Indian start-up will be in charge of manufacturing and deploying night-vision, thermal imaging and long-range surveillance systems. The total order value of $25 million will be executed over the next two years.
Also, late last year, the start-up won a $100-million contract with the Peruvian Army to manufacture and export ‘night-vision sights’ for guns. Of the $100 million, the firm got the first $5.6 million purchase order this year.
Another company from Bengaluru, CM Envirosystems (CME), found a business solution to the problem of testing military equipment. “When the Kargil War took place in 1999, our armed forces were at a serious disadvantage, as some of the armament didn’t work at high altitudes and low temperatures due to lack of specialised provisions for storage of such weapons and equipment. This limitation in our defence technology greatly moved our chairman (Jacob Crasta) and he took it up as a challenge. We realigned our business strategy, focusing on environmental test systems and, today, we are a renowned name among defence suppliers,” says Prajwal Crasta, CEO, CME.
Starting with just about five employees in 1982, CME is today present in four continents, with more than 150 employees. It offers a complete range of environmental test chambers for automotive, electronics and electrical, and defence and aerospace industries. Similarly, hi-tech start-up Saankhya Labs has built a chip called ‘Pruthvi’. The size of a postage stamp, it functions as a ‘software-defined radio’ (SDR), considered the cornerstone of all military communication. “The SDR allows defence forces to integrate various communication platforms (satellite, terrestrial, etc) and inter-operate between legacy and current communication equipment,” says Parag Naik, founder and CEO, Saankhya Labs.
Bengaluru-based Saankhya Labs sells chipsets, modules and complete communication solutions. To the defence segment, it sells hardware modules and complete solutions. “We have 47 employees and we work closely with the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), Bharat Electronics (BEL), Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the defence services. We have just finished a long R&D cycle and are now monetising it. We can’t divulge our order book due to confidentiality reasons… but I can say we are seeing 15 times growth in revenue over the past few years,” says Naik.
There are several other start-ups that are working on similar technologies. VizExpert, a Gurugram-based start-up, for instance, uses 3D visualisation to map out unknown terrains for the BSF. It uses 3D technology equipped with various interaction devices, software and terrain data to plan the operation on a real-time basis.
Then there is Navi Mumbai-based firm ideaForge Technology, whose ‘Netra’ unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were used in the 2015 Nepal earthquake and the 2013 Uttarakhand flood relief operations. Netra UAVs are a collaborative effort with the DRDO. The company, started in 2008 by five IIT Bombay graduates—Ankit Mehta, Ashish Bhat, Rahul Singh, Vipul Joshi and Amardeep Singh—counts the National Security Guard, Indo-Tibetan Border Police, National Disaster Response Force and the Delhi Police among its top clients.
Although still fraught with challenges, the people behind these defence start-ups feel the situation is slowly but steadily improving. “While there are several challenges such as the long gestation period, wary financial investors and the mindset that technology can’t be developed in India, there have been some welcome steps too, such as the overhauling of the government’s Defence Procurement Procedure (that lays out the process for the acquisition of equipment for the armed forces) to include the Indigenously Designed Developed and Manufactured category (that boosts the participation of domestic companies in defence manufacturing), etc. The overall execution speed still remains a challenge though,” says Naik of Saankhya Labs.
Lakshmikumar of Tonbo Imaging says, “The current government is doing a good job of promoting the involvement of private companies. India is in dire need of critical night-vision technology… what’s currently fielded by imports is not state-of-the-art. The government has to fast-track procurement and ensure that our forces have the right equipment when they need it.”
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Environmental test chambers were often imported in the past, says Crasta of CME, and Indian companies were not well-perceived by the defence industry in the country. “Most defence companies are unable to keep themselves updated with the fast-changing technologies and emerging trends. They also do not have the methodology in place to make visits, meet different entities and interact before they set the procurement guidelines or technical requirements.
All such initiatives, even when proposed and accepted by the top bosses, are always seen through the prism of potential corruption, even though we have seldom encountered it in the recent past,” says Crasta, adding, “The situation, however, has changed and companies like ours have been able to meet the same performance standard and quality engineering as the imported products.”