Indian Army pushes for indigenous combat drones; no-import UAVs policy

Indian Army pushes for indigenous combat drones by launching project Him Drone-a-thon. Program is vital at this stage as India lacks capabilities in key areas in drone manufacturing: motors and the sensory elements in electronics.

The Indian Army in collaboration with the Drone Federation of India has launched the ‘Him Drone-a-thon’ programme on 08 August 22. Indian Army said this initiative in line with make in India in defence manufacturing and program is aimed to catalyse and provide focused opportunities to the Indian drone ecosystem to develop path-breaking drone capabilities for meeting requirements of frontline troops.

The Indian Army’s support to the indigenous drone ecosystem is based on the principle that ‘good available indigenously’ is better than the ‘best available globally’. However, gradual enhancement in technology demanded by defence forces is likely to incentivise manufacture of better and more capable drone products.”

The indigenous industry has adequate expertise to develop world class products in this field. Latest procurements by the IA are indicative of its efforts to further encourage the indigenous drone ecosystem,” said army official.

The push comes after the recent development where the home grown company like ideaForge demonstrated capability for military grade drone aircraft to the Indian security forces, including the Indian Army.

Such program is vital at this stage as India lacks capabilities in key areas in drone manufacturing: motors and electronics( the sensory elements)

The ‘Him Drone-a-thon’ programme is pan India sustained connect between all stake holders including industry, academia, software developers and drone product manufacturers. It will be conducted in stages with quantifiable parameters (like altitude, weight, range, endurance etc) being progressively enhanced based on demonstrated capabilities.

Indian Army has planned broad activities. interactions & ideation between users, development agencies, academia etc, seeking of industry responses.

Officials from Indian Army outlined that development agencies will visit various operational locations to understand the ground perspective & requirements, handholding of development agencies for internal development & on-ground trials and actual conduct & evaluation of drone products.

As a start point, various categories are defined for the development, including the Logistics/ Load carrying Drone in High Altitude Areas and Autonomous Surveillance/ Search & Rescue Drone. Beside, Government has also announced the design and develop drones micro nd nano drones for fighting in built up areas.

No- Import Drones

India has largely prohibited import of drones and import of drone components are exempted to encourage domestic drone manufacturing. It is to incentivise domestic drone manufacturers and boost investments

Drone imports allowed only for limited activities upon obtaining import authorizations which is for the research and development by Government entities, educational institutions, government recognized R&D entities, and drone manufacturers. For Defense and security, such policies do not directly impact but it clearly mandates that military drones with ISR functionalities must be procured from the domestic sources.

On February 9, 2022, the Directorate Generate of Foreign Trade (DGFT) under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (Ministry) issued a notification prohibiting the import of drones in India in Completely Built Up (CBU), Completely Knocked Down (CKD) and Semi Knocked Down (SKD) forms, with immediate effect. The Notification exempts the import of drones in CBU, SKD or CKD form only for specific purposes and by specific entities subject to an import authorisation issued by the DGFT.

Official from the Ministry of Defence said this is an opportunity for the domestic drone industry to compete with international manufacturers. Our regulation is clearly directed to support and encourage domestic defence industry, especially focused on startups to realize the potentials.

Military Drones

India’s tryst with military drones resulted in procuring smaller drones for specific purposes in reconnaissance activities from overseas. While we took it as early during the1990s when DRDO developed the Nishant Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) for reconnaissance and surveillance. But it failed to take off after the three of the four systems it built crashed. India ended up importing a wide range of Israeli drones, including the medium-altitude long-endurance Heron I, the Searcher MK II, and the Harop loitering munition. Last year, Indian Army procured a set of new surveillance drones– advanced version of the Heron that allow the ground controller to communicate through a satellite. These have been deployed along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh.

Whare are we now? Currently, the Indian Drone ecosystem is at threshold where various domestic entities are in process of fully expanding their scope across industries, leveraging emerging technologies like AI, AR/ VR, IoT and 3D modelling.

While the global military drones market is projected to grow USD 30 billion by 2025, India remains at the fringe. It called for a policy direction that pushes the drone manufacturing in India. The very concept of drones are largely built on the software which integrates the sensory elements for the data extraction and analysis. Ironically, for India, this defeats the purpose as country prides itself in leading on this front of information technology (IT). The call for no-import of drones was realized in framing policies in civilian space and mandates such direction for military drones. Time has come that our industrial ecosystem must embrace and demonstrate capability to design and develop advanced unmanned and autonomous systems.

Right after, Government postponed the very expansive American predator drone deal which was coming out to be around USD 3 billion for 30 drones. A committee was also set up which is headed by a Lieutenant General. While the report is not in public domain, it is understood that government is not considering such proposal. In fact, the committee lauded the thrust towards making military drone in India as government already has declared it through announcement.

“The amount of money if that is put into the research and development in India will make tremendous difference. This will not only serve the military but the technology will demonstrate the capabilities of Indian private industry/startups in UAVs space,” said a senior officer from Indian navy.

“The idea that India does not posses the expertise of manufacturing key component for drones does not hold anymore,” he added. The outcome is always the result of such policy as government has rightly laid down for procuring such military drones designed and developed in India.

Officials from The Indian Army points out: “The gradual enhancement in technology demanded by defence forces is likely to incentivize manufacture of better & more capable drone products.”

Meanwhile the Central government is also considering the acquisition of an indigenous long-range unmanned aerial vehicle — Heron TP –with strike capabilities being developed by a private Indian firm in partnership with an Israeli defence manufacturer. This is no aberration. “It will be a under the make in India direction if government [Indian] approves,” said Israeli ambassador to India, Noar Glion in an interaction with author.

Other indigenous effort towards building the A medium-altitude long-endurance UAV (MALE UAV) is underway at DRDO.  What about having such capability which could do credible ISR activities? Rustom II is in making but delays pose questions and uncertainty hints of capabilities gap. That is not the case now. There are breakthroughs in several areas, points out G Satheesh Reddy, Secretary DDR&D and Chairman DRDO. 

“Firstly, I would like to share a good news with you about the test we have done a day before. We have touched above 27500 feet altitude. So we have almost reached the target altitude.” he said.

In that case, we don’t need to buy or procure drones from other countries.”

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