Even as the Indian Air Force (IAF) is expected to develop an indigenous Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV), the Indian Army is getting ready to have its own cadre to operate Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).
By 2026 it is estimated that the “Unmanned market’’ is expected to witness a significant growth in India, which is anticipated to be the third largest market in the world. However, as the civil administration and states are fast adopting the indigenous civil drone industry, military drones are still being imported.
At a seminar on UAVs organised on Tuesday by the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS) in New Delhi, Lt Gen AK Suri, Director General of Army Aviation, said that the cadre in the Indian Army will be of operators in terms of piloting and this will help in reducing the load on helicopter pilots. He said the Indian Army has been using UAVs for almost two decades primarily in the Western and Northern borders. These are being used for surveillance purposes.
The Indian Army proposal for setting up a different cadre is under consideration at the Headquarters level before it is sent to the Ministry of Defence for approval. Similarly, a separate UAV cadre proposal for IAF is already with the MoD and no decision has been taken yet.
So far the Indian Army has in its fleet 30 Heron UAVs which have been procured directly from Israel and until now were under Artillery, and since 2021 they are being operated by the Army Aviation.
According to Air Marshal Radhakrishnan Radhish, Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO), Western Air Command, IAF is all set to develop an indigenous UCAV and in this effort Bengaluru based Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) will be involved as it will help in developing the niche technologies. The IAF, according to him, already has a roadmap for induction of medium-altitude long-endurance UAVs and also high-altitude long-endurance UAVs.
According to a report by EY India and FICCI, the potential of the Indian drone and its components manufacturing industry is US$ 23 billion by 2030. The report holds the key to unlocking this potential in the synergy between various ministries that can deliver on a multi-fold agenda.
HALE Vs MALE
High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) refers to a family of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) that can fly up to 10 days at 65,000 ft and even 20 days at 20,000-25,000 ft.
Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) flies between 10,000 ft and 30,000 ft and lasts for about a day or two in flight. Although only recently becoming ubiquitous in militaries worldwide, these drones perform various tasks, these can be used for combat, surveillance and reconnaissance support.
According to experts, “In the context of India, specifically, HALE drones are already in the pipeline. The Combat Air Teaming Systems (CATS) envisions a pseudo satellite named CATS Infinity. CATS is a larger, more ambitious project involving a team of heterogeneous drones that can unthinkably extend the aerial dominance of a pilot when working in tandem.”
Besides Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) which has been working on a MALE drone, Rustom, for a while, state owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is working on the MALE class too. Both DRDO and HAL are collaborating on CATS. Tactical Advanced Platform for Aerial Surveillance Beyond Horizon-201 (TAPAS BH-201) is the first made-in-India MALE drone that will be commissioned into the three services. HAL is already working on six airframes for evaluation of the system.
Sharing his views with Financial Express Online, Dr Ramesh Kestur, a researcher using Artificial Intelligence (AI) in drones, called the dream of becoming a global drone powerhouse an opportunity and a challenge. Highlighting the current state of affairs concerning defence drones in India, he said: “We are good at navigation and control algorithms. However, the important requirement is building military-grade equipment, especially avionics.” According to Dr Kestur, the need of the hour is not only indigenous hardware but also compliance with military grades.
Military Grade Drones
With the sudden surge of interest in the drone industry, hundreds of startups have developed various offerings indigenously. However, these all belie Dr Kestur’s criticism, that is, lack of military-grade hardware. Military-grade drones offer superior tactical ability and reliance.
Echoing similar opinion, Manish Kukreti, Managing Director of Dron Vayu, states that India’s military drone manufacturing capabilities are capable of designing and developing armed MALE and HALE unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
However, he feels that, distinct from commercial UAVs, there is a need to establish redundancies against electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and other electronic warfare (EW) tactics. “Pakistan and China both have capabilities of MALE and HALE against India. India must act now to develop”, he concludes.
Manish Kukreti’s cautions add to the military-grade hardware need highlighted earlier. Somewhat keeping pace with the drone advancements are the countermeasures meant to shoot down any drones.
“These EW suites are being added to aircraft and developed as standalone air defence systems. A defence drone, hence, must be able to defend itself against such methods used by the enemy. While the research has been progressing towards deploying advanced features atop a UAV, there is a narrow focus, especially in the private sector, against adversarial attacks. Formalisation of military-grade hardware into private drones is the only way to deliver a competitive product,” opined a senior officer who wished to remain anonymous.
What does the Indian industry need to do?
Dr Kestur, a researcher in the drone industry, outlined the tasks for the Indian industry to indeed come of age. “We already have good sensor technology, thanks to our space program. We have multispectral and hyperspectral sensors. However, we must build specialised sensors like Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), optical, infrared, and a competent gimbal system”.
He reiterates the quality of AI and Machine Learning (ML) to process sensor data along with navigation and control of AI and ML. He states that primarily robust, military-grade hardware is the bane of the Indian defence industry.
According to Girish Linganna, a noted aerospace and defence analyst, “the private interest in the drone industry is largely hedging against its potential. Currently, the supply chain is skewed, with a lack of flow of government advancements available to the private players. This has resulted in the business being import heavy for private startups. Hence, there is a difficulty in building military grade hardware”.
Sustainable use cases of drones are few and far between. “In the drone swarm industry, it is a fact that at the current level, collision avoidance algorithms check the sustainable operation of only ninety per cent of the drones. So, in any event, if 1000 drones are putting on a show, by the end, 100 are bound to be inoperable and needing replacement,” states Girish Linganna.