NEW DELHI: India is quietly going ahead with an ambitious programme to develop its own stealth UCAVs (unmanned combat aerial vehicles) or 'smart' drones capable of firing missiles and bombs at enemy targets with precision.
Talking about the secretive AURA (autonomous unmanned research aircraft) programme for the first time, Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) told TOI that the aim is to develop the UCAVs for IAF in seven to eight years.
"With Rs 50 crore as seed money, a full-fledged project team with 15-18 scientists has already begun work on the UCAV's preliminary design and technology. With on-board mission computers, data links, fire control radars, identification of friend or foe, and traffic collision avoidance systems, they will be highly intelligent drones," DRDO's chief controller R&D (aeronautics) Dr Prahlada said.
"Capable of flying at altitudes of 30,000 feet and weighing less than 15 tonnes, the UCAVs will have rail-launching for the missiles, bombs and PGMs (precision-guided munitions) they will carry," he added.
The realisation that UCAVs are "game-changers in modern-day warfare" has been reinforced by the successful use of American 'Predator' and 'Reaper' drones, armed with Hellfire and other missiles, against the Taliban in the Af-Pak region.
"But unlike Predators, which are like aircraft, our UCAVs will be more of 'a flying-wing' in design. This will ensure they have a low radar cross-section to evade enemy sensors," said Dr Prahlada.
Pakistan, incidentally, has been after the US to get Predators but so far has only managed to extract assurances for supply of the unarmed 'Shadow' drones for intelligence-gathering missions.
DRDO, on its part, is confident of developing the UCAVs mainly on its own, with "some foreign consultancy or collaboration" in fields like stealth as well as autonomous short-run take-off and landing.
Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) at Bangalore is the main nodal DRDO lab for the AURA project, with others like Defence Avionics Research Establishment (Bangalore), Defence Electronics Application Lab (Dehradun) and Gas Turbine Research Establishment (Bangalore) chipping in.
As earlier reported by TOI, apart from spy drones, India already has some "killer" drones like Israeli Harpy and Harop UAVs. These drones basically act as cruise missiles by detecting and then destroying specific enemy targets and radars by exploding into them.
UCAVs are much more advanced, almost like fighter jets in the sense that they let loose missiles on enemy targets before returning to home bases to re-arm themselves for the next mission.
IAF is also exploring "add-ons or attachments" to its existing fleet of Israeli Heron and Searcher-II UAVs to upgrade them from their present surveillance and precision-targeting roles into some sort of combat drones.
India quietly begins combat drone project