Drones: Can we make in India?

By Varun Arni

Indigenously designed and manufactured UAVs might be right around the corner.  Indeed, by leveraging our pool of software engineers and applying the lessons learned from the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), such UAV programs could serve as ideal flagships for the entire ‘Make in India’ brand.  However, loosening the government’s hold on the local defense space and encouraging more private players to enter is key.

While government departments have done a great deal to develop local defense capabilities up till now, a question mark still remains over their ability to deliver competitive world-class projects in a timely fashion.  The ever-present elephant in the room, the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), is a prime example, and has taken over two decades to develop. In the context of UAVs, the LCA should act as an introductory exercise in building experience in flight dynamics, sensors, simulation, hardware and composite materials.

The LCA’s Achilles heel has undoubtedly been the locally-developed Kaveri engine.  Luckily, UAVs could give the Kaveri a new lease of life, since they require less from their engines than manned aircraft.  Indeed, the DRDOs latest project, the AURA unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), is set to employ this engine.  Conversely, UAVs make ideal test beds for further engine development since pilot risk is not a factor when testing the operational limits of the engine.

For its own efforts, the government should not necessarily shy away from hiring foreign talent either.  The advanced HAL HF24 ground strike aircraft from the 1960s is a prime example of how our government fast tracked progress by bringing in a team of German engineers.  If rapid progress is to be made in a similar way, these high-tech specialists should also be allowed a certain degree of freedom from restrictive and often time consuming bureaucratic procedures.

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India’s promising beginning: the HAL HF-24 Marut – now all but forgotten

The biggest current challenge in UAV development is the fusion of hardware with software and designing routines capable of combining data and presenting it in a manner that gives vehicle operators more awareness.  The other challenge is developing the aircrafts own autonomous capabilities, enabling it to execute certain tasks (such as taking off and landing) on its own.

With India’s large pool of software developers and expertise in radar tech, these stand as areas where we should be able to excel and differentiate our products.  Our expertise should be leveraged by concentrating on sensor integration and software-intensive fields such as simulation, visual analysis, human-machine interfaces, sensor fusion and artificial intelligence – topics which are more relevant than ever thanks to the proliferation of UAVs.

Composite materials and manufacturing is another area worth focusing on.  Once again, the LCA project has played a large part in developing our capabilities.  These lightweight, strong materials are increasingly being used in the aircraft and automotive sectors, both of which are high tech, high value industries and should be targets of the ‘Make in India’ campaign.  If India is angling to be a manufacturing hub, these sectors (and consumer tech) can’t be ignored, which means licensing our recently developed expertise in composite manufacturing techniques to local private sector entities, allowing them to attract further automotive and consumer manufacturing.

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The LCA has gone some way in developing composites expertise in India

Additional private sector involvement should be encouraged via more transparent and timely public tender processes.  FDI regulations have attracted a number of companies to the aerospace and defense segments, encouraging such companies to collaborate and contribute their know-how would be an attractive way for them to further develop their capabilities.

In this context, it is nice to see that the government has been waking up to the fact the private sector can make a defense contribution.  It is in the process of opening up the defense radio frequency spectrum band, allowing a small number of private companies to develop certain defense-related UAVs operating in this band.  This signals a major, and welcome, change of heart for the government.

Looking at technologically advanced nations with strong military/aerospace backgrounds, a number of these countries have multiple private companies vying for tenders, ensuring timeliness, competitiveness, strong talent pools and multiple technological development paths for governments, all of which are important for a strong products and industry.  This is a scenario which India should work towards by involving multiple private defence partners/contractors.

With public tenders as an option for bigger enterprises, at lower levels exercises should be made to encourage innovation.  These can take the form of prestigious competitions similar to those run by DARPA in the US or the various X-Prizes, which serve to inspire the next generation, throw up new ideas and bring in new players.

Industry should also make efforts to ensure greater alignment with academia by channeling university resources into industry-relevant topics.  This should shape specific expertise and provide companies with new blood possessing an existing level of knowledge and familiarity with the industry.  Tie-ups between companies and institutions should ensure the sustainability of industry and should indeed come about as a byproduct of increased private sector participation, as companies seek to eke out any competitive advantage by better utilizing resources.

If the nation is to mount a sustained effort to bring manufacturing here, it needs to do so not just by dint of low cost/ cheap labor but also promise future growth prospects and local expertise.  For its message is to be believable, India needs to demonstrate itself throughout the spectrum of manufacturing.  Projects such as the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) cap the industry, while UAVs can exist just below the pinnacle, showcasing our high-end private sector series production expertise. Only by attracting such a spectrum can India build a sustainable long-term case for its manufacturing industries, rather than merely tempting ‘sunset’ industries.

Varun Arni is a researcher at the Takshashila Institution.

One Response to Drones: Can we make in India?

  1. aar August 4, 2016 at 11:44 am #

    Indigenisation can only provide strategic autonomy in real sense, however, such endeavours are always subjected to pulls and pressures from exporters.

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