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DRDO's plan for an eye in the sky

Last updated on: June 05, 2008 15:08 IST

This is the third of a four-part series on the DRDO, which has instituted fundamental changes in the way it will approach equipment development.

Part I: New DRDO: An engagement with the military

Part II: New DRDO: Technology first, weapons later

The so-called "war on terror" since 2001 has debunked much of the conventional wisdom about what military equipment a country needs to protect its citizens.

But one piece of equipment that has repeatedly proved its relevance is the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, a remotely piloted aircraft that circles several thousand feet over a target area, continuously relaying high-definition pictures to a monitor, far away.

The UAV has shown, in counter-insurgency and in anti-terrorist operations as much as in war, the critical importance of an 'eye in the sky'.

Unsurprisingly then, India's Defence R&D Organisation -- despite having radically curbed its traditional eagerness to develop even non-essential systems -- is going ahead with developing UAVs.

The DRDO has sent out expressions of interest to several private sector companies, including the Tata Group, L&T and Godrej & Boyce, for manufacturing Medium Altitude Long Endurance UAVs, which will be developed by the DRDO. These MALE UAVs will fly at tens of thousands of feet, watching targets for more than 24 hours continuously.

There are several firsts in the MALE UAV programme. It will be the first aeronautical programme in which the DRDO will partner a private company; since independence, public sector giant, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, has monopolised this sector.

This will also be the first time a production agency (the private company that wins the contract to manufacture the UAVs) will work with the DRDO right through the development process, so that the production run can begin without any hitches.

Significant as those landmarks are, the most interesting part of the MALE UAV programme is the decision-making process, which the DRDO has adopted, in consultation with the military. This was revealed to Business Standard in a series of interviews with top DRDO scientists.

In deciding on India's fleet of unmanned aircraft, the DRDO and the military first zeroed in on UAVs that no country would sell. They agreed to develop micro-UAVs, which a soldier can carry on his back and quickly launch; and also complex Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles, which carry full weapon-loads to strike aerial and ground targets.

A greater dilemma was over mid-sized UAVs; countries like Israel are eager to sell India MALE UAVs. But eventually, says DRDO chief controller of aeronautics and materials sciences, Dipankar Banerjee, it was decided to develop, rather than buy, MALE UAVs for two main reasons.

Firstly, the large number of UAVs the military requires creates a powerful commercial logic for a private company to manufacture them. And secondly, the DRDO feared that import of MALE UAVs might be blocked.

Banerjee explains, "We have to see what is possible under the Missile Technology Control Regime, which bans the transfer of technology and products with more than 300 kilometres range and 500 kilograms payload. And so, there may be MTCR controls that prevent us from acquiring MALE UAVs. We also recognise that the technology that we develop for the MALE UAV will go into the UCAV."

Notwithstanding the fears of technology sanctions, the DRDO knows that India's growing leverage as a major arms buyer is making sensitive technologies easier to access.

Technology planners in the DRDO say they are increasingly relying on components assembled from COTS (commercially available off-the-shelf) equipment; the DRDO will develop only strategically vital components and carry out the technologically challenging task of "systems integration", i.e. assembling a multitude of components into a functioning military system.

Before the end of June, request for proposals will be floated for the MALE UAVs. This project will be an important test for the DRDO's new thinking, it will, equally be a test for the concept of bringing a private sector company into a major project as the DRDO's industry partner.

Part IV: DRDO's secret technology wish list

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Ajai Shukla in New Delhi