Our spy in the skies by Indulekha A in Bus Stand 16/2/2013
Back then, it was a giant leap of faith. Nimish Sharma used to dabble in aircraft design with a couple of friends while doing his graduation in aerospace engineering at IIT Kanpur. “We formed an aeromodelling club and were the first students in IIT to build and fly a model aircraft,” says 28-year-old Sharma. But this was not just about fiddling around with model aircraft and getting them airborne. When it was time to graduate, Sharma and six of his friends abandoned mainstream (read lucrative) career options and set up Aurora Integrated Systems, one of the first private ventures in India to manufacture unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, indigenously.
Sitting in their workshop-cum-office near the Jakkur Airfield in Bangalore, Raman Puri, Aurora’s CEO and one of Sharma’s six friends, laughs on being asked whether people had told them that they were crazy to set up the company in 2006, when UAV was hardly a familiar term. “Yeah, but we had to take that plunge. If you keep thinking of the hurdles, you’ll be stuck at the starting line,” says Puri.
UAVs started to become known a little post-9/11, with the US military using drones extensively to target militants in hotspots like Afghanistan and Pakistan. These aircraft are remote-controlled, so no soldier’s life is at risk in their deployment, which is why President Barack Obama might well ramp up the drone programme, despite various controversies, including civilian casualties.
But UAVs, which range from killer drones like the Predator and Reaper that return to base after carrying out an attack, to variants that weigh as little as one to two kilograms and can be carried around in a soldier’s backpack, can do a lot more than destroy targets. Reconnaissance and surveillance is another major area of deployment, whether it be monitoring traffic, keeping an eye on the border or surveying the movement of extremists in dense forested areas, earning them the moniker of “spy in the sky”.
The US used a UAV to spy on Osama bin Laden while he was in Pakistan. Closer home, for New Year, the Mumbai police were reportedly planning to use Netra, a UAV weighing 1.5 kg developed jointly by the Defence and Research Development Organisation and ideaForge, a company incubated in IIT Bombay, to monitor the revelry from a vantage point. Aurora, which makes medium-altitude UAVs and smaller models that weigh less than 2 kg, says it has leased a UAV to the Tirumala temple to keep an eye on thronging devotees. The potential, it appears, is immense.
If recent developments are any indication, there are many others beside Sharma and Puri who realise this and are expecting an increase in demand for UAVs. At the just-concluded Aero India summit in Bangalore, Hindustan Aeronautics Chairman R K Tyagi said the company would be presenting a blueprint of the country's need for UAVs to the government in two months. HAL, he said, had formed a 10-member group which would be working with academic and research institutes to design, develop and manufacture UAVs and would be investing up to Rs 500 crore in the segment.
DRDO Director General V K Saraswat has told Aeronautical Development Establishment, the DRDO wing working on UAVs, that he would like to see the first trial flight of Rustom II, India’s most sophisticated UAV to date which is being designed to reach an altitude of 30,000 feet, fly for 36 hours and carry a payload of 350 kg, by the end of this year. ADE’s Lakshya I and II and Nishant are already in operation, while trial flights of Rustom I are underway. ADE has also developed five UAV variants in the mini and micro category, and has initiated a Rs 80-crore programme to develop micro and nano UAVs with futuristic technologies like sensors that can detect smell, or, as ADE Director P M Krishnan puts it, “all kinds of exotic aircraft”. Long-term plans include solar-powered UAVs.
The private sector is not far behind. Last August, Piramal Enterprises bought a 27.8 per cent stake in BlueBird Aero Systems, an Israeli manufacturer of tactical UAVs, for $7 million. UAVs have a lot of potential in India, both in military and civilian applications, says a senior executive of Piramal Systems and Technologies, who requested not to be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media. “Our joint venture with BlueBird shows our interest in the segment. UAVs will never replace humans entirely in warfare but would complement them,” he says.
According to the Indian partner of another Israeli firm specialising in tactical UAVs, interest in the segment is such that a tender floated by the army a couple of years ago, later scrapped, attracted the interest of 40 to 45 companies. “The expertise of many of these companies might be questionable but it is obvious that everyone smells an opportunity,” he says.
Dhaval Shah, a product manager at Ahmedabad-based einfochips, which supplies components to UAV makers, says the company has seen sales of components grow 30 to 40 per cent year-on-year in the last three years, while Servocontrol Aerospace, a company in Karnataka that has been supplying actuators to UAV-makers since 2007, says demand has been growing steadily.
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But that’s on the supply side. Demand is a more complicated story. The Indian military has been buying UAVs but, so far, the bulk of the purchases have been from Israel, mainly the Heron, a medium-altitude long endurance aircraft, and Searcher I & II. As far as the ADE offerings go, 50 Lakshya I, a reusable aerial target system, have been sold so far and 50 more are in the pipeline. Orders for 30 to 40 Lakshya II are also in the offing, says ADE’s Krishnan. Twelve orders have been placed for Nishant, a multi-mission UAV that can be used for reconnaissance, surveillance and correction of artillery fire.
If lack of effective marketing has been holding back the development of larger UAVs, according to Krishnan, he is even less optimistic about the mini and micro UAVs. “There is interest, yes, but people have not started deploying micro UAVs in large numbers,” he says, adding that no firm order has been placed so far for ADE’s micro and mini UAVs. Others say interest exists but blame the tardy procurement process of the armed and paramilitary forces. “We were asked to give a demonstration of our UAVs to CRPF. When the trial was successfully completed, they asked us if they could wet-lease the aircraft immediately, to circumvent the cumbersome procurement procedure. That’s the kind of urgency that exists,” says the Piramal Systems executive.
“There has to be a close connection between the government and companies developing defence products,” adds Aurora’s Puri. Rather than issuing tenders, getting companies to conduct trials at their expense and carry on an evaluation process that lasts over two years during which you have to maintain inventory and personnel, the government should give development projects, he says. Indigenously-produced UAVs, he points out, can offer a significant cost advantage.
So has Aurora’s bet paid off? Well, yes and no. Yes, because last December, Tata Advanced Systems, the Tata Sons company operating in the aerospace and homeland security segment, took a controlling stake in Aurora. (The promoters declined to reveal details of the deal and the company’s revenue, citing a non-disclosure pact) The Tatas had been an investor from the early stages, and being a capital- and technology-intensive sector, with a long gestation period, consolidation might be the way forward, at least for the smaller players.
But even then, it might be a good while before the Indian market gets anywhere close to the United States, where UAVs are a multi-billion dollar industry. “We are 10 years behind the US in using systems of this nature, and 6 to 7 years behind Israel,” says Sharma.