Bengaluru startup Tonbo Imaging is co-developing man-portable anti-tank guided missiles with Bharat Dynamics
Tonbo got traction at home only after the US special forces and Israel Aerospace Industries became its clients
Byzantine defence procurement processes make it hard for India’s startups to pitch in their tech know-how to modernize the armed forces, especially in critical areas like anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), whose shortage was acutely felt during the border skirmish with China.
One outlier is Bengaluru startup Tonbo Imaging, which has landed a co-development deal with state-run firm Bharat Dynamics Ltd (BDL) to produce MPAT-GMs (man-portable ATGMs). These lightweight precision missiles will be tipped with state-of-the-art imaging systems, enabling them to home in on enemy tanks and hit them at their most vulnerable points.
It’s the latest twist in a long saga of the Indian armed forces’ quest for modern ATGMs fitted with imaging infrared (IIR) seekers for night-fighting. A deal to buy 8,356 Israeli Spike missiles was dumped at the last minute in 2017 on hopes that the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), which had been working on indigenous ATGMs for over a decade, would deliver them. But despite periodic announcements of “successful tests", DRDO’s third-generation Nag missiles are yet to be inducted as doubts persist over their costs and capabilities. The army even had to place an emergency order for 240 Spike missiles to be deployed on the Pakistan border following the Pulwama attack and Balakot air strike in 2019.
Now, MPATGM capabilities have moved even beyond third-generation systems. For example, Tonbo’s IIR seeker has an ‘uncooled’ imaging system, which lowers its cost by one-third to half because it doesn’t require a cryogenic compressor to cool the image sensors. “We have used an uncooled imager to achieve the same thing as cooled imaging sensor technology. So, that gives us a great price advantage, not just because it’s made in India, but also because the technology we have chosen gives us an upper hand," points out Tonbo’s co-founder and CTO Ankit Kumar.
That’s how the agility and disruptive ability of a startup comes into play. Israel’s Rafael, for example, is a leader in this space, producing Spike missiles for armed forces around the world for several years. It’s harder for a behemoth like that to shift to new technology from cooled systems. And the same applies to DRDO, which announced the “final test" of its Nag missiles last year but may well find they are outdated even before deployment.
“Tonbo has built an ultra lightweight uncooled seeker. Nag’s IIR seeker is a cooled, much heavier system. One of the big differences between a cooled system and an uncooled system is the cost. When you have a large expensive missile with long range, a cooled system might be acceptable. In an MPATGM, where the cost of the missile is expected to be as low as possible, using a cooled seeker doesn’t make sense. It’s like putting a Ferrari engine for driving on roads where the maximum speed is 20kmph," says Tonbo’s founder and CEO Arvind Lakshmikumar.
Price and weight are not the only factors in contention. The ‘fire and forget’ capability of an MPATGM or guided bomb or ‘kamikaze’ drone depends on its edge AI onboard image processing and real-time recognition of targets. Nine-year-old Tonbo, whose founder has a PhD in computer vision from the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University, has been building infrared image libraries of military targets to train the algorithms in its seekers to be able to do just that.
“The problem with current missile-seekers is that they are not terribly intelligent," says Lakshmikumar. “Tonbo’s seeker is built on our deep learning technology that can automatically classify weak areas on a target. As the missile is fired, the seeker can identify the vulnerable parts of a target and reorient the missile to hit those parts. This allows an MPATGM to have an impact against armoured hulls."
Tonbo means dragonfly in Japanese as well as Tamil. The reference is to the dragonfly’s unique compound eyes with 40,000 lenses from which its brain derives a composite image. Similarly, the AI in Tonbo’s seeker combines the image inputs from multiple sensors to home in.
Ironically enough, the startup first made headway with its intelligent imaging systems in foreign markets before gaining the trust of Indian defence. It got traction at home only after two of the world’s most advanced entities, the US special forces and Israel Aerospace Industries, became its clients. Even Rafael is a Tonbo customer.
Now, finally, it may be India’s turn to benefit from the deep tech startup’s expertise in something as strategic as missile systems, where the latest technology is often denied to buyers from developing nations.
Air Marshal Shirish Baban Deo, who was vice chief of air staff when he retired in 2018, has first-hand experience of how buyers from India are sometimes treated. “I wanted to buy a forward-looking infrared system from a US firm. They were asking, ‘What would you do with it? Why do you need this quality? Why don’t you take a lower quality one?’ I was paying good money, but they just didn’t want to sell that to me. It was humiliating," he recalls.
He believes a push for self-reliance is overdue. “If you have a crisis on your hands and you need something urgently, they’ll not give it to you. And if at all they give it to you, it will be at an absolutely exorbitant price. So, it’s extremely important for our national security that we make these things ourselves. This is where Tonbo has set a new benchmark for us, and the government is now backing the defence industry."
He feels attitudes are changing towards Indian private sector involvement in strategic areas. “I can tell you that when I was in service, it was sort of not encouraged. People were very reluctant to trust things that were made in India. Tonbo is a pioneer in this. They had a different business strategy. They were very sure of their competence, so they focused on exports first," he says.
Deo himself has now floated a firm—JSR Dynamics—to make cutting-edge defence systems. “I am also thinking of making an ATGM that will compete with what BDL has made. The seeker is one thing but the ATGM has a whole lot of other components. There’s the warhead design, there’s guidance and control and there’s the ability to launch from a confined space, which JSR is doing."
Imaging infrared seekers with edge AI processing on board are the eyes and on-the-spot decision-makers of modern warfare, whether it’s MPATGMs or a swarm of drones or ‘loitering munitions’, which are missiles that can hover over a target until it’s the right time to hit it. So, the MPATGM deal could be a game-changer for indigenization of critical defence equipment powered by a startup.
“The procurement plan is for 2,300 pieces initially once we have demonstrated it. Then the total requirement is a few thousands every year because India is lagging behind in this capability," says Kumar.
Malavika Velayanikal is a consulting editor with Mint. She tweets @vmalu