Bangalore: As India’s military beefs up its fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, used for reconnaissance, global and local firms are eyeing what they think is a multi-million-dollar business that will grow steadily.
UK-based BAE Systems Plc. showcased its untested long-endurance UAV called Mantis at the Aero India show, while Israel Aircraft Industries Ltd, or IAI, which helped India during the Kargil war with its Heron drones, is working through partners such as Speck Systems Ltd, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and Alpha Design Technologies Pvt. Ltd to win deals in the country.
HAL, the country’s military plane maker, and Bharat Electronics Ltd have jointly bid to build the Rustom-branded UAV of India’s aeronautical development establishment, or ADE, which is designing the medium-altitude long-endurance drone.
ADE, a unit of India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation, or DRDO, will deliver the first batch of homegrown Nishant tactical UAV by March, said a DRDO official, who didn’t want to be named.
Multiplying fleet: DRDO’s Rustom UAV on display in Aero India 2009 in Bangalore. DRDO chief Natarajan said the agency had begun work on UAV’s using designs from its light combat aircraft Tejas. Hemant Mishra / Mint
DRDO chief M. Natarajan said the agency has begun work on what he called an unmanned combat air vehicle, using designs from its light combat aircraft Tejas.
“In today’s security environment...use of UAVs will only increase. The payloads on these UAVs are getting better and better and it will only give better results,” said India’s air force chief F.H. Major at the Aero India show, which closed here for business visitors on Friday. The show will remain open for the public on the weekend.
Analysts say there is growing demand for homeland security, following the Mumbai terror attack, due to porous borders and limited abilities to deploy men on them.
“There is a lot of concern of protecting the borders. The demand for unmanned aerial vehicles is not just the defence, but also homeland security,” said Dhiraj Mathur, India leader of the aerospace practice at consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. He does not have an estimate for the market potential.
Israel’s IAI has a joint venture with Tata Advanced Systems Ltd, a unit of the Tata group, to locally produce its UAVs, spares for the drones and avionics. It also is developing a helicopter drone with HAL, using the Chetak helicopter for the Navy.
“The opportunity (in India) is hundreds of millions of dollars, only in military over multiple years,” said Dorok Suslik, IAI’s vice-president for corporate communications. Smaller firms such as Speck, Alpha Design and Coral Digital Technologies Pvt. Ltd are building these drones by partnering with Israeli firms and India’s National Aeronautics Laboratories, or NAL.
“Our machines (drones) are useful for operations that allows a soldier to monitor situations in few kilometres (radius),” said H.S. Shankar, chairman of Alpha Design.
Bangalore-based NAL and Coral have tested a micro-UAV, which weighs 250g that could be potentially used for surveillance and reconnaissance. NAL has a 10 year plan to build micro-UAVs.
The use of UAVs is expanding beyond defence. Ramelex Pvt. Ltd, a Maharashtra firm that maintains and services transmission lines in India and West Asia, has contracted Aerobot Unmanned Systems Pvt. Ltd to deploy the latter’s drones to inspect and detect potential problems with power lines.
“It is the first such contract to be awarded for deployment of UAVs for commercial operations and we are confident that this will serve as a launch pad to open the market for commercial UAV operations,” said Arjun Naik, managing director of Aerobot. The contract is valued at Rs14.5 crore for 10 years.