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First, some old Soviet aircraft converted into drones buzzed overhead as decoys for Armenian forces to open fire and disclose their positions. Then, swarms of Azerbaijani kamikaze drones sought out and crashed into Armenian targets. (Kamikaze refers to Japanese suicide missions in which pilots flew their planes into allied naval vessels during the Second World War.)

The unmanned, low-cost ‘suicide’ drones that Azerbaijan acquired from Israel and Turkey swiftly eliminated hundreds of Armenian tanks, rocket-launchers and armoured vehicles. In just six weeks late last year, Azerbaijan reclaimed from Armenia the Nagorno-Karabakh region it had lost in a war in the 1990s.

This showed how even a country without a sophisticated air force can dramatically alter the course of a decades-long conflict with the tools of modern warfare.

Unlike the drones that the US used to launch missiles in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attack, the kamikaze drones don’t launch missiles—they are the missiles.

Wings in the shape of a cross enable them to fly fast as well as hover over their targets until their artificial intelligence (AI) brains tell them that it is time to strike. Hence, they are also known as ‘loitering munitions’.

Joint venture

The relatively low cost of producing these, and the new avionics, imaging and AI technologies that go into them, have attracted startups. One of these is AVision, a joint venture between Israel’s UVision and Hyderabad-based Aditya Precitech to make loitering munition systems. These range from man-portable light kamikaze drones to those with longer ranges and higher payloads. The idea behind the JV is to meet Indian needs as well as manufacture these at a lower cost for global customers.

But there’s also scope for new technology to be developed. Recently, AVision won an ‘open challenge’ of iDEX (Innovations for Defence Excellence), an Indian government initiative to engage startups and incubators with the armed forces.

“What we plan to do with the iDEX project is to develop these loitering munitions for longer ranges," says Col (retd) Anil Yadav, founder and CEO of AVision, who served in the Indian Army and also had a stint as procurement director in the ministry of defence.

In the future, an air strike on a terrorist camp in disputed territory, for example, could be carried out by kamikaze drones instead of exposing manned fighter planes.

But even as suicide drones become a game-changer in warfare, tech defences against them are also emerging. Another iDEX open challenge winner, for instance, is Delhi-based Hyper Stealth, which is developing paints that can ‘hide’ tanks and other assets from the homing sensors of today’s munitions.

“What happens when you put a stealth coating on a tank is that its visibility to sensors reduces from 3km to less than a kilometre," says Manish Dalmmia, who has been running a defence tech company for 16 years. Hyper Stealth is his new self-funded venture.

There is also a Canadian company called Hyperstealth, which claims to have a ‘cloak of invisibility’, a la Harry Potter. Hyperstealth’s cloak is a patent-pending paper-thin material that its creators claim can “bend" infrared light, thus making the object it covers invisible to sensors.

It’s hard to see evidence of such capabilities until products are made and deployed, which is an expensive proposition in defence tech. In the case of India’s Hyper Stealth, the iDEX open challenge makes it eligible for a grant of 1.5 crore that is given in five tranches as the startup works with a designated accelerator.

The three-year-old iDEX programme has drawn attention to the scope for Indian startups to contribute to defence innovation and indigenization. But these are still baby steps. Both Yadav and Dalmmia pointed out that defence tech startups will only become significant contributors if their products are ultimately procured for the armed forces. It’s not like other sectors where an internet of things or IoT product for one vertical could be repurposed for another industry if sales cycles are too long in the former. That’s usually harder to do for tech products made for defence applications.

Startup solutions

Vish Sahasranamam, co-founder and CEO of Forge Accelerator in Coimbatore, which has a pivotal role in building out the iDEX programme, admits there will be questions until there are “more success stories of solutions from startups getting procured and inducted into the military".

What the iDEX programme has been able to do is give startups visibility on the requirements of the armed forces through the Defence Innovation Startup Challenge, which has had four rounds so far.

“We have also given innovators a pathway to procurement by amending the Bible, which is the Defence Acquisition Procedure, to include a third track called innovation after Make 1 and Make 2 (which aim to foster indigenous production)," says Sahasranamam.

Now, we just have to wait for the proof of the pudding.

Sumit Chakraberty is a consulting editor with Mint. Write to him at chakraberty@gmail.com

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