UAVs all set to dominate the skies

By Editor 09-Jun-2021


Apart from performing multiple civilian tasks, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are turning a crucial component of the defence preparedness of all nations. India too has followed the trend and is engaged in efforts to develop UAVs suited for its needs. Meanwhile, there are also plans to acquire the most advanced UAVs for defence purposes from foreign manufacturers.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are considered the future of warfare and they have helped win wars in recent times. Moreover, they are utilized for a number of civilian purposes. A UAV, often referred to as a drone, is an aircraft operated without a human pilot on board. UAVs were originally used for military missions too ‘dull, dirty or dangerous’ for humans but are now finding numerous civilian applications.

Depending on their function, UAVs can be generally classified into six types: Combat; Reconnaissance; Target and decoy; Logistics; Civil and commercial, covering agriculture, aerial photography and data collection and Research and development.

According to data in 2020, seventeen countries have armed UAVs, and more than 100 countries use UAVs in a military capacity. The global military UAV market is dominated by companies based in the United States and Israel. The top importers of military UAVs are the United Kingdom and India.

Civilian UAVs

In the civilian sector, UAVs have been used for aerial crop surveys, spraying pesticides and fertilizers in farms, aerial photography, search and rescue, inspection of power lines and pipelines, counting wildlife, delivering medical supplies to remote areas, reconnaissance activities, detection of wildlife hunting, environment monitoring, border patrol, convoy protection, forest fire detection and monitoring, surveillance, coordinating humanitarian aid, land surveying, fire and accident investigation, landslide measurement, construction, archaeology and crowd monitoring. They are also used for illegal activities such as smuggling.

The civilian UAV market is relatively new compared to the military one and is dominated by Chinese companies. The Chinese drone manufacturer DJI alone had 74% of civilian-market share in 2018. However, following increased scrutiny of its activities, the US Interior Department grounded its fleet of DJI drones in 2020.

The global UAV market is expected to reach US Dollars 21.47 billion, with the Indian market touching the US Dollars 885.7 million mark in 2021.

Cargo, passenger UAVs

According to aviation industry experts, large cargo and passengers UAVs would be developed over the coming 20 years. Short-haul, low altitude freighters outside cities could be operational from 2025; long-haul cargo flights by the mid-2030s and passenger flights by 2040.

Indian UAVs

Along with several other countries, India has been developing UAVs over the last several decades. The following are among the major projects launched by the country:

DRDO Lakshya: It is a remotely-piloted high-speed target drone system developed by the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). A variant Lakshya-1 is used to perform discreet aerial reconnaissance of battlefield and target acquisition. Built by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the first flight of Lakshya took place in 1985 and it was introduced in the armed forces in 2000. The primary users of the UAV are the Indian Army, Indian Air Force and Indian Navy.

The advanced version of pilotless target aircraft (PTA) Lakshya-II was again successfully flight- tested in January 2012. In March 2017, Air Force version of Lakshya-2 was successfully test-flown and has been inducted into the defence services.

DRDO Rustom: The Rustom is a UAV being developed by DRDO for the Indian Armed Forces. Rustom will replace or supplement the Israeli Heron UAVs in service with India. The first flight of Rustom-1 took place in November 2009. The aircraft has been named after the late Rustom Damania, a former professor of IISc, Bangalore. DRDO decided to name the UAV after him because it is derived from National Aerospace Laboratories' (NAL’s) light canard research aircraft (LCRA) developed under Rustom Damania's leadership in the 1980s.

Rustom will be able to see the enemy territory up to a distance of 250 km and carry a variety of cameras and radar for surveillance. Rustom-H, built on a different design, is a Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) UAV, a twin engine system designed to carry out surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Rustom H will have a payload capacity of 350 kg.

There will be three variants of the Rustom UAV. They are, Rustom-1, a tactical UAV with endurance of 12 hours; Rustom-H: Larger UAV with flight endurance of over 24 hours, higher range and service ceiling than Rustom-1 and TAPAS-BH-201 (Rustom-2): A UAV based on Rustom-H model. The Indian government has allowed the development of the Rustom MALE UAV project in association with a production agency cum development partner (PADP).

Rustom 2 is designed to carry out surveillance and reconnaissance roles for the Indian Armed Forces. It is capable of carrying different combination of payloads including synthetic aperture radar, electronic intelligence systems and situational awareness systems. The UAV has an endurance of 24 hours and at present is capable of reaching altitude of 23,000 feet. Automatic take-off (ATO) flight was conducted in November 2020 and the range of operations touched 250 km.

DRDO carried out a successful test flight of TAPAS-BH-201 in February 2018, at the Aeronautical Test Range (ATR) located in Chalakere, Chitradurga district of Karnataka. This was the first flight of the UAV in user configuration with higher power engine. Later, it completed the satellite communication (SATCOM) mode trial and flew with long range electro-optical payload in August 2020.

DRDO Netra: The Netra is a light-weight, autonomous UAV for surveillance and reconnaissance operations. It has been jointly developed by the Research and Development Establishment (R&DE) and IdeaForge, a Mumbai-based private firm. Its first flight took place in July 2010 and was introduced in service in January 2012. The primary users are Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Border Security Force (BSF). The drone is designed to be used in hostage situations, border infiltration monitoring, law enforcement operations, search and rescue operations, disaster management and aerial photography. It can also be used in Naxal-affected districts, in border locations across India for surveillance, and for anti-terrorist and counter-insurgency operations in dense forested areas, where it can use its camera payloads to track human activity.

In July 2013, during the 136th Jagannath Rath Yatra, Ahmedabad became the first Indian city to use UAVs for crowd management. The operators include DRDO, BSF, Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), CRPF, Mumbai Police, Maharashtra Police, Gujarat Police and NDRF.

IAI-HAL NRUAV: Also referred to as the Naval Rotary Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, it is a rotorcraft project being co-developed by Malat Solutions, a unit of IAI of Israel, and HAL of India for the Indian Navy. The IAI-HAL NRUAV project consists of a Malat-made Helicopter Modification Suite (HeMoS) fitted on HAL's Chetan, an upgraded Chetak with Turbomeca TM 333 2M2 engines. The helicopter is planned to be used for unmanned operations and advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions from warship decks. The project was initiated in late 2008 and as of March 2019, a full-scale prototype has been developed and unveiled, and is currently awaiting clearance for a preliminary design review.

MARAAL: The MARAAL is a series of solar-powered UAVs developed by the aerospace department of IIT Kanpur. They are multipurpose UAVs, primarily focused on defence requirements. The first flight of the UAV took place in February 2016. MARAAL-1 is India's first solar-powered UAV. The project was sponsored by Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) for the feasibility study of the solar powered aircraft in Indian atmospheric conditions. The researchers soon developed another solar powered UAV - MARAAL-2 - having improved capabilities. It has completed several successful test flights. MARAAL-2 is a medium altitude, long range (up to 200 km), fully autonomous and mission-programmable UAV.

Drones from foreign suppliers

Along with developing UAVs indigenously, India is engaged in efforts to acquire them from manufacturers abroad. For instance, a US Dollars 3 billion deal for the purchase of 30 armed drones manufactured by US company General Atomics is in the pipeline. The beneficiaries of the transaction would be India’s Army, Navy and Air Force.

The Indian armed forces already utilize Israel’s Heron Surveillance drones and the Harop loitering munition but only for surveillance purposes. The Indian Air Force also uses IAI Searcher of Israeli design.

General Atomics’ MQ-9 Reaper, also called Predator drone, can detect targets using its inbuilt sensors and radars. It has an endurance of more than 27 hours and carries payloads up to nearly 1,700 kg with a range of 6,000 nautical miles and a flying capacity of up to 50,000 feet. It can carry deadly hell fire missiles and laser-guided bombs, making it a potent weapon. The Predator B armed drones have been used by the US forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. These high altitude long endurance (HALE) drones would be critical for the Indian military for operations in higher reaches of Kashmir, Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim.

Meanwhile, modeled on US project Skyborg, HAL has started work on a UAV project that will allow teaming up of unmanned aircraft with fighter jets with human pilots.