By Milind Kulshreshtha
With the mega Bharat Drone Mahotsav 2022 at New Delhi inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the message regarding the arrival of a mature Drone Industry in India was loud and clear.
The vision of Budget 2022 highlighting the ‘Drones’ as a sunrise sector and ‘Drone Shakti’ through varied applications like Drone-As-A-Service (DrAAS) was much evident. The presence of numerous Agricultural drone companies was a sound reflection of ‘Kisan Drones’ for crop monitoring and spraying of insecticides. The drone popularity attracted Defence personnel, commercial users, along with school and college going students.
Under the Atmanirbhar Bharat effort of the government, the event showcased a mix of products, sub-systems and components for military and commercial purposes and some dual use technologies. The representation of big names like Adani’s to MSMEs and start-ups on the same platform reflected the multitude of opportunities in India not only for Drone business but also the acknowledgment of talent for indigenous innovations. The MSMEs and Start-ups were able to showcase their unique products and take a peek at the competition already existing in the indigenous drone market.
Interesting to note was the drone support ecosystem too evolving in India, like while a start-up was fielding drone designing software packages, another was displaying a gambit of drone related electronics (including Satellite communications) for drones.
Drones in Warfare Tactics
The drones already possess unprecedented reconnaissance capabilities and the ability to pinpoint a target. The exploitation of weaponized drones and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) are a well established warfare tactic as these have the capability to stealthily penetrate an enemy air space carrying onboard an explosive payload or missile. A weaponized drone with an advanced navigation/control feature combined with an effective optical day/night sensor is a lethal weapon against enemy targets as already noted in the ongoing Ukraine-Russia conflict. With a few hundred dollars’ worth of a commercial drone in their hands, even a Ukrainian civilian considers himself an air warrior by assisting Ukrainian forces with ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) operations against Russian troops. It is changing times for warfare, with the drones and anti-drone solutions being fielded at the frontlines and making a difference in the outcome of day-to-day military operations.
The use of drones in warfare has already effected changes in the COMSEC (Communication Security) and TRANSEC (Transmission Security) and Electronic Warfare (EW) policies. Every modern Air Defence (AD) system with SAMs (Surface-to-Air Missiles) explicitly caters for drone hunting capabilities and buyers in the Arms market keenly look out for such specifications in the equipment brochures. The evolution of computation on the edge has already unfurled the Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications onboard the drones itself. Overall, today the rapid evolution of swarms of drones technology coupled with AI tilts the scale towards attacking drones, with anti-drone capabilities still few years behind before they catch up, if ever. With indigenisation push from Government, India today is on the right trajectory for future warfare, but the journey is not going to be easy. Local manufacturing industry shall be playing a critical role here and the drone component manufacturing MSMEs hold the key to success.
Military Vs Commercial Drone Technology
Year 2021 saw a rapid sequence of steps by the government for the growth of indigenous drone industry. This included the liberalised Drone Rules, 2021, Drone Airspace Map, Drone PLI scheme, National Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM) policy framework, followed by 2022 Drone certification scheme and single window DigitalSky Platform. In Feb ‘2022, Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) banned the import of drones primarily to boost the ‘Made-in-India’ initiative. This included a ban on the popular Chinese DJI drones from the top drone maker globally. However, certain exceptions were allowed in the rule allowing drone imports for R&D, defence and security purposes after necessary import clearances. The import of drone components was allowed due to lack of availability of local drone components manufacturers for niche technologies.
A relevant example here is the popular drone communication protocol MAVLink (Micro Air Vehicle Link). During their flight, the drones typically communicate through wireless links with a Ground Control Station (GCS) to report status for drone control during flight. The Drone design caters for this special onboard autopilot hardware and software application that controls the motion of the drone and monitors its status, while further communicating this to the ground control station using a telemetry or WiFi link. The open source MAVLink protocol is extensively used by major drone autopilot systems like PixHawk (PX4) and ArduPilot. In India, the IIT Delhi incubated start-up Botlab Dynamics (the drone light show firm) fields the Jynx Flight controller. This embedded solution is based on the ARM Cortex-M4 processor, which is a commercial processor especially developed to address the need for control and signal processing capabilities. The push for manufacturing of such niche components may be the next level for the indigenous drone industry.
Indian Armed Forces have been using foreign made military drones for over two decades now and are keen to induct secure and reliable indigenous drones. The requirement to field military grade drone airframes and ruggedised Ground Controllers seemed to be well addressed by the Indian drone industry. However, the Defence forces are also focussed on the indigenous embedded solutions like the drone Flight Controller meeting the MIL standards to effectively achieve self-reliance.
As a way ahead, the indigenous military drone suppliers not only require to tweak their airframes and ruggedise the external hardware, but also suitably perform a cybersecurity penetration testing to identify potential security weaknesses in the existing solutions. The MIL grade standardisation and certification of embedded solutions for drones too are essential to make the indigenous industry prepared for Indian defence forces. Whereas, the need to weed out Chinese-made subsystems from Drones being manufactured in India is a well established fact, the supply of cost effective alternatives to the Chinese components is always a challenge for the local Drone manufacturers. Today, the government’s move to give an impetus to the local drone industry can be considered more than a mere technology initiative but a step of geostrategic significance to develop an indigenous warfare toolin the near future.
(The author is a C4I expert & Strategic Analyst. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).