Like the computer and AI revolutions were driven by military applications, the drone revolution which is underway is also military led and largely military driven. Aside from a small news insert of pizza deliveries or Amazon deliveries at the doorstep in a few developed countries, drones made little news. It was the unparallel success of the Bayraktar TB-2 in the Armenia -Azerbaijan war and the use of TAI Anka and Bayraktar TB-2 in Syria in 2020 that heralded the arrival of drones as a decisive weapon of war. Today, Ukraine owes a major share of its success against a powerful Russian army to drones and drone warfare.
This realisation has transformed the method of modern warfighting as nations review their doctrines and strategies both in the sub-conventional as well as conventional domains. In turn, this has spurred a huge growth in drone manufacture, drone research and drone applications – in fact the entire drone ecosystem. As nations compete in the arms bazaar for a share of this growing industry, the absorption of technology as well as its adoption will be fast paced and continuously innovative, stimulating growth in the civil sector and the drone ecosystem to meet the needs of the military. In short, sustained development of the military grade drones will lead the way for industry growth.
India has extensively used Unarmed Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in targeted reconnaissance and combat missions in the last two decades. With the maturing and development of this technology, the Indian UAV ecosystem is at a crossroads right now, with many domestic companies on the verge of significantly broadening their operations across sectors with the help of cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence, augmented reality (AV), the internet of things (IOT), and 3D modeling. Officials from the Indian Army point out: “The gradual enhancement in technology demanded by Defence Forces is likely to incentivize manufacture of better and more capable drone products.”
Categorisation of Drones
According to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), drones can be categorized as follows.
- Nano Drones: drone weighing less than or equal to 250 grams;
- Micro Drone: Weigh more than 250 grams and less than or equal to 2 kg;
- Small Drone: are more than 2 kg and less than or equal to 25 kg in weight;
- Medium Drone: Weigh more than 25 kg and less than or equal to 150 kg;
- Large drone: are more than 150 kg in weight.
Military Applications of Drones:
In India itself we see a huge impetus given to the industry by a rising demand in UAVs from the micro to the large HALE and MALE UAVs. The Army as well as the Para Military Forces are going in for ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance), Attack or Armed and Logistics drones. In fact, we are seeing an increasing convergence in the dual use of drones both in the military as well as civilian roles. This has encouraged a number of start-ups and SMEs to diversify their products to meet the dual requirements of both users. For eg, Logistics drones are finding use in transportation of essential medicines and lifesaving drugs both in the cities as well as far flung areas of our borders.
Some military applications of Drones are:
- Intelligence, Surveillance & Recconnaisance
Defence Forces must constantly track the movements, deployments and activities of their adversaries to assess intentions and keep abreast with developments. While traditional methods like HUMINT or SIGINT are already known, it is the arrival of the drone that has completely transformed ISR capabilities. The results of drones in the Armenia – Azerbaijan war or the ongoing Russia – Ukraine war have enabled complete battlefield transparency to Commanders and armed drones have revolutionized the way top attack or three-dimensional attack on land can be exploited to expose the vulnerabilities of even the most sophisticated tanks, ICVs or guns. The use of drones for logistics, assisting in direction of rocket and artillery fires and indigenous modifications to small drones by dropping grenades or mortar bombs has completely changed the way modern wars are fought in a classic conventional battlespace. While Bayraktar- 2 emerged as a tank killer, small locally manufactured drones provided troops with information of bases, deployment and move of gun convoys and troops.
- Search and Rescue
Drones can ensure more effective search and rescue operations, which allows for 24-hour coverage of the required locations, regardless of the time of day. Typically, in SHAA/HAA areas where accessibility is a challenge and extreme weather conditions a huge threat, drones have successfully proven their capacity to deliver supplies, medicines, lifesaving equipment and food/water to patrols, mountaineering expeditions, areas affected by avalanches, snowstorms or inclement weather. As carrying capacities increase and the technology matures, we should see even human casualties being evacuated by heavy lift logistics drones. Slowly drones will even relieve or replace helicopters which have hitherto fore been the workhorses in executing SAR missions in inaccessible terrains.
- Delivery of Essentials
The delivery of packages is another critical application for drone technology. Conquering difficult terrain in a short span of time, they can deliver necessary items such as medical supplies, food, first aid kits and survival kits among other essentials needed for facing life threatening situations. In the thick of battle, drone’s integral to units can be used to lift F-echelon stores to forward troops across an obstacle like a canal or river or even a minefield.
- Use of Tethered Drones for Confined Boundaries
Tethered drones are a unique modification of the drone family. Tethered to a wire and kept aloft at heights of upto 2-300 meters, these drones provide a 360-degree view and can be extremely useful in maintaining round the clock vigil over security zones, bases, sensitive installations etc. The tethered drone is secure in that it uses an optical fiber cable to transmit live data feed to the Ground Control Station (GCS) and therefore, its employment in situational monitoring and troop security has become a necessity. The biggest advantage of tethered drones is that they cannot be jammed or interfered and their ability to remain on station is a function of the availability of power source to the drone. Resultantly, modern drones can be on station for upto 14 days and efforts are on to improve their staying power. Tethered drones can withstand up to light gale conditions (60 kmph) winds and have the ability to be anchored to ships/moving vehicles for flexibility in employment. Improved versions of tethered drones provide for the drone to take to autonomous flight by detaching from the tether and flying to an area of interest while providing live feed and has a return to home (RTH) facility whereby it can be recovered and place back on station.
- Land Surveying and Mapping
Drones can be used for surveying and mapping the land. Outputs from these surveys can be utilized for Battle Ground Planning, which maps topography, terrain configurations, trafficability, obstacle value and even ascertaining depth of water obstacles to assist in mission planning. Commanders can be provided 3D views of their objectives including terrain configuration, bridges, obstacles systems, gaps and enemy deployment. In built up areas, Drone mapping can be used to predict location and deployment in operations by identifying possible open spaces and areas conducive to use of artillery, logistics bases, deployment of command elements, concentration and assembly areas.
- Videography and Live streaming
Drones can also be utilized for live video streaming and videography. Conduct of operations, progress of operations especially special operations can be monitored and controlled in headquarters using drones. Videography can be used to maintain records and repeat missions can detect change, match and identify shift/relocation of forces, posts, field fortifications and bases. During training drones can be suitably employed to check targets, record hits, measure range & distance and survey.
- Loitering Drones
Loitering drones, often called suicide drones, are unmanned aerial vehicles that act as airborne bombs that can be triggered remotely once they reach the target. To attack with pinpoint accuracy, they can hover over a target and strike on pre-planned or controlled attack missions.
Drones were originally developed by the aerospace and defense sector for use in counterinsurgency and defense, where they have proven to be invaluable. Target decoys and research aids are just two of their many uses. In addition, they can be integrated with AI and Big Data to improve accuracy and minimize collateral damage, identify potential targets including humans and provide intelligence and information by its complex algorithms.
Nurturing a Drone Revolution in Military Affairs
UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles) are now an essential weapon of any progressive military’s arsenal. Their employability has been constantly expanding in keeping with emerging technologies in the military domain. Initially used to drop dumb munitions, their strike range and payloads have been constantly improving with the integration with precision weapons, target acquisition & interpretation technologies, and in recent times the advent of machine learning, artificial intelligence and robotics that has made a huge impact in the unmanned vehicles segment – whether UUVs (Unmanned underwater vehicles) or USVs (Unmanned surface vehicles).
Unfortunately, the Indian industry has been slow in adopting these emerging technologies and has only recently realised the need to boost this capability. Further, defence industry has been the sole purview of the DRDO for ages which has denied the space for the industry to flourish in the civil sector. This over-reliance on the ability of the DRDO to indigenise or exploit the first mover advantage that the government facilitated for decades, has been a major cause of the lag in imbibing military technologies in Indian defence industry. Resultantly, there has been a delay in the ability of the civil side to manufacture UCAVs.
Nevertheless, the present governments impetus to the drone industry and the PMs calls for making India the Drone Hub of the world by 2030 has spurred an unprecedented surge in the growth of drone manufacturing and drone services in India. Supported by some very practical and progressive laws, rules and regulations, the drone space is fully primed for a huge leap in the world market. To regulate the growth and exercise control, Government of India approached the public for views & suggestions, studied rules and regulations worldwide before issuing detailed guidelines called the ‘Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, 2021’ (also called UAS Rules) on 12 March 2021. Consequent to a drone attack on Jammu airfield, these rules were withdrawn. Thereafter under Section 14 of the Aircraft Act, 1934, vide notification of the Government of India in the MoCA number G.S.R. 489 (E), dated 15 July 2021, a fresh set of rules called the Drone Rules, 2021 were issued. These rules govern the policy for training and use of drones in India. These rules are NOT applicable to the Armed Forces.
Further, these rules do not in any way change or amend the government laid down rules for procurement of drones (or for that matter any equipment) from within India or abroad. Therefore, government support to enable manufacture of military grade drones is not the domain of either the DGCA or the Aviation Ministry. It is entirely driven by the policies made by the Ministry of Defence and presently executed via the DAP 2020 (Defence Acquisition Procedure, 2020) the eighth such edition since 2002. A thick 657-page document, it lays down a 12-stage laborious if not somewhat frustrating process of procurement of weapons. Drones have to go through the same fate.
AtmaNirbhar Bharat Initiative
AtmaNirbhar Bharat or self-reliant India is the policy driver of defence and manufacturing in India. The core objectives of AtmaNirbhar Bharat are, firstly; Facilitate rapid development of new, indigenised, and innovative technologies for the Indian defence and aerospace sector, secondly; Create a culture of engagement with innovative start-ups, to encourage co-creation for defence and aerospace sectors, and thirdly; Empower a culture of technology co-creation and co-innovation within the defence and aerospace sectors.
This policy is implemented using two innovative and popular initiatives:
- Made In India, a programme that aims to absorb Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) into the defence supply chain and to boost the self-reliance of the country. MSMEs will be acquainted with the provisions & avenues introduced by the Government to incentivise MSMEs, through various events viz. conclaves, workshops, vendor development meets, seminars, exhibitions and on-site visits to the prominent defence sector establishments in the public and private sector.
- Innovations for Defence Excellence (IDEX), an initiative that provides a platform for start-ups to collaborate with industrial entities and develop new technologies and products in defence for the period 2021-26.
Thus, an environment that is positive, sensitive and responsive to needs of defence manufacturers has been created. Defence manufacturers also need support from government in terms of favourable policy guidelines.
- A liberal import regime to facilitate transfer of technology.
- Facilitation of technical partnerships with foreign companies to imbue modern and emerging technologies thereby reducing timelines for induction of these technologies into the armed forces.
Support from the Ministry of Defence
The accessibility, adaptability, and convenience of drones have made them major contributors to India’s job market and economic growth, particularly in the country’s rural and hard-to-reach regions. As of June 2022, more than 200 new drone start-ups have been founded, and this number continues to rise. One such success story is DroneAcharya Aerial Innovations Limited, a Pune-based enterprise drone solutions provider. It provides Drone & GIS services in a wide variety of fields and also offers training in a wide range of GIS and Drone-related topics. In addition to their work as an end-to-end data solution supplier, DroneAcharya has introduced a variety of aerial and geospatial products to the Indian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) market. According to Prateek Srivastava, Founder and Managing Director of DroneAcharya Aerial Innovations Limited, “Drones were first used in India during the Kargil war in 1999. Since many technological advancements are currently being explored, the usage of drones in the defense sector has great promise.” While the Defense Services are providing support and encouraging start-ups to innovate and provide solutions to defence related problems, start-ups need two major policy support measures:
- Start-ups are cash strapped and need financial support. An idea that has promise must be given a chance to fructify.
- An environment free from bureaucratic rules & regulations especially liberalized import rules that tend to deter the innovative spirit.
- Firm orders and commitment to scale up will spur and incentivize growth.
In sum, Defence Forces need to take responsibility, espouse and nurture talent, encourage innovative ideas, hand hold bright minds through the R&D process and accept failure. Only then will a fragile and budding drone ecosystem find firm foundations and blossom into the PMs dream of being the drone hub of the world. Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a recent event said “We have made technology a key tool to impart new strength, speed and scale to the country. Technology has helped a lot in furthering the vision of saturation and in ensuring last-mile delivery”. As far as the future of drones in defense goes, the Indian drone industry has a vast opportunity to work hand in hand with the defense sector.