New Delhi: The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war and the earlier Azerbaijan and Armenia war have brought out one aspect of modern warfare — the use of drones for both surveillance and punitive action.
While India has always been dependent on countries like Israel for its drones, the dependence is slowly making way for indigenous systems.
A high-altitude India-made drone being used for reconnaissance at the tense Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China, a joint venture between an Indian conglomerate and an Israeli defence giant operating out of Hyderabad, and a Bengaluru-based drone technology venture acquired by one of India’s biggest business houses — these are minor glimpses into India’s burgeoning, if nascent, private military drone manufacturing industry.
In August 2021, new rules for drone technologies were notified by the central government. The ‘Drone Rules 2021’ form the government’s ideational bedrock to catalyse a booming indigenous drone production industry, especially as the government works to build a strong military-industrial complex in the country.
Also read: Why countering ‘low-tech drone terror’ is going to be a big challenge for India
Significance of drones in conflict
This increased focus on drone technologies by India comes amid their enhanced centrality in conflict.
In the Russia-Ukraine conflict, drones have played a central role for both reconnaissance and attack purposes.
Ukraine has assiduously used drones to track Russian troop movements, gain intelligence on them, and attack their infantry and artillery. Specifically, the loitering munition “spy ghost”, developed by the US for Ukraine, has been used by their military to target the Russians.
Even the Turkish Bayraktar drone has been used extensively by the Ukrainians for intelligence and attack purposes.
In the Indian military, the ethos around drones is seeing a change. In the Army, the drones used to be earlier operated by the artillery, but it is now for the Army Aviation Corps to ensure the optimised usage of drones.
The change is significant as drones are now being used by the Indian Army for surveillance purposes at the LAC, as the stand-off with China continues.
For the first time, the Army is now also going for loitering munitions, something operated only by the Indian Air Force (IAF) earlier.
In September last year, in a span of less than two weeks, the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force signed multiple contracts worth over Rs 500 crore in the sphere of drone technology with the focus on Indian companies.
Sources had at the time termed the procurement of swarm drones and loitering munitions by the Army and Navy part of the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’, or RMA, which changes the way war is fought.
Given these global military dynamics, and the Indian government’s push for drone manufacturing, a few private military drone manufacturers are developing important technologies.
NewSpace Research & Technologies Pvt Ltd, run by former IAF officer Sameer Joshi, is working on swarm drone technology — something that the Army and Air Force are keen on.
Last year, NewSpace won a $15 million swarm drone order from the Indian Army even as it works on bigger programmes.
ideaForge & the SWITCH drone
Mumbai-based ideaForge is a private drone manufacturer founded in 2007.
They have supplied their products to multiple defence and security institutions like the Indian Army, Air Force, Border Security Force, Gujarat Police, and Assam Rifles, among others.
While ideaForge has a broad portfolio, a product of significant import is the SWITCH high-altitude tactical drone.
The SWITCH drone is meant for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), especially at high altitudes. This is the first indigenously produced drone that the Indian Army began to use, in 2021.
Ankit Mehta, CEO and co-founder of ideaForge, told ThePrint: “The SWITCH, when it comes to technical qualifications, can outperform other drones.”
At the beginning of 2021, the Army awarded a contract to ideaForge worth $20 million for the SWITCH drones. The Army’s special forces and infantry are currently using these drones.
Such has been the impact of the drones on the Indian Army’s surveillance ability that it has placed a new order for an upgraded version of the SWITCH drones.
Talking about the orders from the Indian Army, Mehta said: “These marquee deals have opened the floodgates for indigenous drones and component-makers to thrive. A market that used to be dominated by international products in drones is now moving towards indigenous products only.”
The CEO of ideaForge added that he is bullish about the prospects of India’s private drone manufacturers over the next decade, and that ‘Drone Rules 2021’ have enhanced the ease of use and adoption of the technology.
Also read: ‘Drone swarms’ are coming, and they are the future of wars in the air
Adani Defence-Elbit Systems JV
In 2018, Adani Defence & Aerospace and Israeli firm Elbit Systems, in a joint venture (JV), opened up an advanced drone manufacturing unit in Hyderabad.
The company said the unit was the first state-of-the-art manufacturing facility of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in India.
The JV was to first cater to international markets, and then pivot to providing for the Indian armed services.
Carbon composite structures for the Hermes 900 and Hermes 450 UAVs are manufactured at the Hyderabad facility. The facility is the only production unit of the Hermes medium- altitude long-endurance UAV outside of Israel.
Sources told ThePrint that exports of Hermes UAVs from the Hyderabad facility have started, while the facility is being expanded to cater to growing orders.
The company also announced that they are initiating the largest export of mini-UAVs from their plants. According to sources, these mini-UAVs are being manufactured, integrated, and assembled at a new plant in Bengaluru.
Alluding to the growing capacity of Indian drone manufacturers, the Adani Defence & Aerospace website shows that they are also manufacturing multi-rotor low-altitude VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) UAVs, commonly called the Thor, tactical mini-UAVs, commonly called the Skylark, and a tactical loitering munition, also known as Sky Striker.
Sources in the know said the Skylark and Sky Striker are already being exported, and could in time also cater to the Indian armed forces. “The capability of the Thor has already been demonstrated at high altitudes to the Indian security services,” a source said.
Asteria Aerospace & software platforms
Asteria Aerospace is a Bengaluru-based company that specialises in drone software and technology.
In 2019, Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries took a majority stake in the company. Asteria started sales in 2016 after nearly five years of investing in R&D.
Asteria’s products stand out as they don’t only manufacture drones, but also develop the software and internal technologies that ensure their operation.
Their website lists two main products — drones and SkyDeck. The latter is a cloud-based software platform that was launched on 23 March 2022. The main focus of SkyDeck is to enhance the inspection and surveillance capacity of drones.
Neel Mehta, co-founder of the firm, said their drones “are operated by one or two people on the ground and have either daytime or night-time camera”.
“The area that they cover is anywhere between 5 km and 15 km. SkyDeck acts as a multiplier and provides a platform for accessing data and visuals from the drones, remotely, by anyone across the country,” he added.
The SkyDeck can allow India’s armed forces to remotely assess real-time feeds from drones over India’s borders, spot irregularities and infiltrations, and take decisions in accordance.
Asteria’s website lists the Indian Army, West Bengal Police, Kerala Police, and Greater Mumbai City Police, among others, as clients.
On the government’s initiatives for the sector, Mehta said the “Union government’s enhanced engagements with start-ups through the iDEX platform have ensured that the latest technologies are reaching the armed forces”.
“It is in an important bridge between the government and private industry,” he added.
Areas that require focus
While industry sentiment remains bullish on India’s drone manufacturing capacity, certain hindrances remain.
Antara Vats, Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), told ThePrint: “Policy focus has been on enhancing drone manufacturing in India. However, a push is needed on developing the software technologies that make these drones function.”
A skilled workforce, Vats said, “is needed for both component manufacturing and software development”.
“India needs to increase investment in vocational courses and drone schools to support its ambition of becoming a global drone hub,” Vats added, while unpacking the asymmetries between investment in manufacturing and skill development.
Sources also told ThePrint that defence procurement cycles are fairly long and this hinders access to state-of-the art technologies in real time.
With inputs from Anupriya Chatterjee
(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)
Also read: Defence ministry’s ‘mammoth’ digital survey of 17.78 lakh acres of land — how, why & what next