UAV Era - India’s Drone Market to Conquer Skies

By Anantha Narayanan K 12-Mar-2018

The production of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or drones is constantly on the rise in today’s world, and in India too, a young drone industry is booming with tremendous practical applications that can no longer be disputed. Drones have started becoming part of Indian life with a plethora of roles just like the smartphones became inevitable. Earlier the UAVs have been purely used for reconnaissance purposes, but now drones are everywhere with defined roles. Drone manufacturers, including Indian Start-ups are revolutionising the multifarious drone-applications in both military and non-military sectors including communication, combat roles, electronic warfare, surveillance, bomb detection, shipping and delivery, rescue operations, agriculture, surveying, disaster management, safety inspection, weather forecasting, wildlife monitoring, filming and journalism and even law enforcement.

Drones even have some creative purposes these days like drone selfies and drone racing. They also have increasing uses in civil applications, such as policing, firefighting and inspection of power lines and pipelines. State departments and ministries such as the railways, surface transport, power, and law enforcement are also using drone-enabled services. All these applications of the UAV confirm that the uses of the UAVs are not limited to just military. Now, business players focus on the untapped potential of drone industry by investing millions to manufacture unique UAVs, with innovative and practical purposes. Moreover, the new set of drone rules, unveiled by the Ministry of Civil Aviation, came as a relief for the industry, and has given the boost for drone-makers in the country, and the coming years will see a massive growth of drone industry in India.

Drones in Military

Today, the world’s military forces are competing each other to go more unmanned. India is no exception in the case.  The advent of drones in military sector has brought in potential changes in the way armed forces work. Now, drones in military, known as Unmanned Aerial Combat Vehicles (UACV), have become indispensable lethal assets and almost all countries are now focusing on developing their own UAV fleet. The UAVs assume high relevance because of their relative simplicity, manoeuvrability, flexibility and affordability for a wide range of missions and applications like surveillance, scouting enemy activities, collecting information, and even attacking military targets and terrorist hideouts.

Being a country with one of the largest military spending, India is focusing on strengthening its UAV capabilities of the armed forces. The DRDO has made many unmanned aerial vehicles like Abhyas High Speed Expendable Aerial Target, Nishant UAV, Lakshya Pilotless Target Aircraft, Rustom-Medium Altitude Long Endurance Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle and AURA-Autonomous Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle, which is an unmanned stealth bomber. Rustom-II MALE UAV is the latest addition to the Rustom series of UAVs, intended for use by the Indian Armed Forces in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) tasks. DRDO is also going ahead with the plan to develop a new class of UAVs. The government’s ‘Make in India’ initiative, is encouraging private companies to boost manufacturing unmanned surveillance devices and weapon systems for the armed forces.

UAVs are more preferred for missions that involve too danger and risk for soldiers as well as manned aircrafts, especially in adverse terrain conditions and hostile grounds. The greater manoeuvrability of drones coupled with lower capital and operating costs, longer operational duration, less maintenance and higher energy efficiency increase the acceptance of drones in military. For decades, countries like the United States and Israel have held the edge in the development and use of aerial unmanned systems. The Predator of the US and the Heron of Israel are examples of top-of-the-line UAVs which are being used worldwide. The drones are one of the primary weapons in U.S. counter terrorism strategy as both the Predator and the Reaper have strike capabilities, usually carrying a payload of AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles. But now, more countries are reaping the advantages of unmanned systems after being convinced by its uses.

India hopes to expand its army’s existing fleet of Searcher Mk 2 UAVs and procure mini-UAVs. With an aim of keeping a close watch on the borders with Pakistan and China, the Director General of Artillery of the Indian army has recently decided to procure 60 short-range UAVs for aerial scrutiny. The UAVs, which can be equipped with different types of surveillance payloads such as electro-optical and infra-red (IR) with laser designator, electronic intelligence, communication, synthetic aperture, maritime patrol radar, radio relay and traffic collision avoidance systems, will give the Indian armed force an edge over the enemies.

Non-Military Drones

Drones have found an array of applications in sectors other than military, and manufacturers are developing advanced UAVs to meet diverse needs of various sectors. One of the latest applications of drones is shipping and delivery of parcels, which is going to be revolutionary for the world in the coming years by significantly reducing delivery times and human labour. Chinese e-commerce firm Alibaba has recently completed delivery of packages six boxes of passionfruit with a combined weight of around 12 kilograms using three drones. E-Commerce giants Amazon and Flipkart too are working on bringing to fruition its home delivery project using drones. The draft policy, recently unveiled by the Indian Civil Aviation Ministry seeks to promote drones for the use of parcel delivery.

At the Singapore Airshow in February, Airbus has announced the launch of its Asia-Pacific operations for aerial commercial drone services. Aiming at the emerging business of package delivery, Airbus has demonstrated its Skyways UAV at the Singapore National University, where the drone showed its automatic loading and unloading capability of parcels using a robotic arm. Recently, Boeing has unveiled a new unmanned electric vertical-take-off-and-landing, (eVTOL), cargo air vehicle prototype that it plans to use for cargo, logistics use. Boeing Chief Technology Officer Greg Hyslop has said that the eVTOL cargo air vehicle is designed to transport a payload up to 500 pounds and will assist in future cargo and logistic applications. Earlier in December, Boeing has unveiled its MQ-25 unmanned aircraft system for the aerial refuelling of U.S. Navy jets, operating from aircraft carriers.

Drones are being utilized to ensure effective monitoring and maintenance works. The Thiruvananthapuram Division of Indian Railways has decided to use drones for monitoring the maintenance of tracks and other railway infrastructure development, via aerial videography of the entire division track. The ministry of railways has earlier directed the officials to utilize the service of UAVs to enhance safety and efficiency of train operations. Research & Skill Development Centre (RSDC), a Hyderabad-based drone manufacturer has developed a drone for the Andhra Pradesh Panchayati Raj Department for mapping of villages in the state. More similar drones would be made and sold to state-owned departments like police, municipal administration & urban development for various tasks and operations like mapping of cities and towns.

Giving a major fillip to organ donation in the state of Kerala, Kerala Network for Organ Sharing (KNOS), in collaboration with Canadian scientists, has decided to use drones for transporting organs from brain dead patients to recipients in hospitals, as makes drones a faster and comparatively cheaper option. The trials of the project will be soon started to check the feasibility. The drones will transport the harvested organs, which have a short shelf life, from one hospital will be delivered directly to another hospital within 200 to 250 km in the initial phase.

For the rescue purposes during last month’s heavy rain floods in Chennai, The Tamil Nadu Disaster Rescue Force (TNDRF) and personnel from TN Commando Force (TNCF) have used four UAVs to locate people stranded in certain pockets of the city’s interiors, which was submerged in the flood water. The high-resolution surveillance drones have covered 2.5km radius and transmitted a direct feed to the control room. The drones, equipped with thermal and high-definition cameras, have hovered at a speed of up to 60Kmph.

The drones have applications in wildlife monitoring and forest study. Haryana's forest department has planned to use drones to increase surveillance in the most ecologically sensitive areas of the Aravalli mountains to prevent poachers and activities like cutting trees, building roads and encroachments. Drones are better than satellites in capturing images and can take videos that become important evidence in these cases.