By Tekendra Parmar
Need to Know provides context and resources to help you get a better understanding of recent developments in the world of drones.
What You Need to Know About Drones in India
Last May, Mumbai became the first city to have a margarita pizza delivered via drone. Flying over the traditional lunch delivery system—the army of dabbawalas who shuttle lunchboxes to offices all over the city—the pizza-drone, which was launched from Francesco’s Pizzeria, made sense in a city known for its history of atypical and innovative delivery solutions. Under current regulations, the use of drones for commercial purposes is still illegal in India. Francesco’s Pizzeria sidestepped the law by delivering the pie to the owner’s ‘friend’—not a ‘customer’—and thus technically did not engage in a commercial transaction.
Perhaps inspired by the delivery of the margarita pizza, e-retail behemoth Amazon plans to use Mumbai and Bangalore as the trial launch pad for their PrimeAir delivery system. Drones are becoming serious business in India, both in the commercial and military spheres. As the country becomes a big player in the drone game, here’s what you need to know:
INDIA’S MILITARY DRONES
India first used military drones during the 1999 Kargil War with Pakistan. Army search and reconnaissance missions proved to be incredibly difficult, if not nearly impossible, without air support. The Indian Air Force deployed manned English Canberra PR57 aircraft for photo reconnaissance along the Line of Control, but this system proved highly inefficient and strategically weak over the mountainous Kargil terrain.
After India lost a Canberra PR57 to Pakistani infrared homing missiles, Israel discreetly supplied the Indian Air Force with IAI Heron and Searcher drones, which were useful for acquiring target information along the Line of Control.
Since Kargil, India has procured a number of Israeli military unmanned aircraft. India’s current arsenal includes the Israel Aerospace Industries Harpy and Harop unmanned combat aerial vehicles, and IAI Searcher and Heron unmanned aerial vehicles. In 2009, the Indian Air Force purchased 10 Harops in a $100 million contract with Israel Aerospace Industries. In February 2013, the Indian Air Force made a $280 million deal with Israel Aerospace Industries for a new series of Heron medium-altitude, long-endurance drones.
In late 2013, India’s Ministry of Defense rejected an offer by Israel Aerospace Industries and India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) to jointly develop a new version of the Heron UAV. According to Israeli officials, India turned down the offer because of an internal struggle among Indian Defense officials, many of whom, they said, would rather stimulate India’s domestic drone program than team up with Israel Aerospace Industries (this could not be confirmed). Israeli sources estimated the potential value of the project at several hundred million dollars.
In June of 2013, India began deploying Heron surveillance drones in a limited capacity over Maoist rebel strongholds in the east. Such activity has been limited to Andhra Pradesh-Odisha and Andhra-Chhattisgarh. These states are densely forested, however, so the UAVs have been of little use in reconnaissance and surveillance. India’s Central Reserve Police Force claimed that an ambush last Monday that killed 14 of its soldiers could have been prevented if there had been a Heron UAV overhead.
Two weeks ago, a Heron UAV, used by the Indian Air Force for surveillance purposes crashed near the town of Bhuj in Gujrat. The downed UAV was reportedly spotted by startled villagers, who later reported the aircraft to the town’s police commission. Indian Air Force officials are still unsure as to the cause of the crash, and a court of inquiry has been ordered.
India’s Defense Research and Development Organization has also developed its own domestic UAV program. The project aims to develop a domestic arsenal to replace and augment the existing fleet of IAI vehicles. Here is a list of completed and pending DRDO projects:
- DRDO Lakshya: a target drone used for discreet aerial reconnaissance and target acquisition. It is launched by solid propellant rocket motor and sustained by a turbojet engine in flight.
- DRDO Nishant: primarily designed for intelligence-gathering over enemy territory and also for reconnaissance, training, surveillance, target designation, artillery fire correction, and damage assessment. The Nishant has completed its developmental phase and user trials.
- DRDO Aura: similar to the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, a a stealth drone that will be capable of releasing missiles, bombs, and precision-guided munitions. The details of the Aura project are still, for the most part, classified. Aura projected test date is set to be sometime in 2016.
- DRDO Rustom: Modeled after the American Predator UAV, the Rustom is a Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) system. Like the Predator, the Rustom is designed to be used for both reconnaissance and combat missions. The Rustom is still in prototype stage and is expected to replace and supplement Israeli Heron model UAVs in the Indian Air Force.
CIVILIAN DRONES IN INDIA
In August, The Economic Times, reported that Amazon Prime Air deliveries would be made in the cities of Bangalore and Mumbai before the Hindu festival of Diwali; the festival occurred in October, but no customer deliveries have been made to date.
Following Amazon’s announcement, this past October the Directorate General of Civil Aviation announced that until proper rules and regulations are formulated, the use of drones by civilians will be illegal. The DGCA made an announcement on October 7th 2014: “Till such regulations are issued, no non government agency, organization, or an individual will launch a UAS in Indian Civil Airspace for any purpose whatsoever.” No date has been given for these regulations. (This announcement likely explains Amazon’s failure to begin testing Prime Air.)
In spite of the uncertain regulatory future, domestic startups are producing and using drones for both security and commercial purposes. Drones have been used to provide services ranging from disaster relief, security and surveillance, and aerial photography. Here is a list of notable Indian drone startup companies:
- Social Drones: A startup that “designs and manufactures user friendly, easy to use, high-performance drones for social and unconventional applications.” Social Drones made news when its drones were used to provide disaster relief in Uttarakhand after severe flooding in 2013. The company’s drones were used to airdrop first aid kits to areas where relief efforts had been stalled, as well as to areas that were deemed unsafe for conventional relief methods.
- Airpix: specializes in aerial photography and video production. Clients include real estate agents, tourism organizations, to journalists in disaster zones. After floods ravaged the Indian state of Uttarakhand in June of 2013, Airpix drone photography was used in a campaign to rebuild Uttarakhand and to spread awareness about infrastructural deficiencies in the mountainous state.
- Garuda Robotics: started by 20-year old college drop-out, Pulkit Jaiswal, Garuda produces software to gather and analyze data collected by drones. The company also produces software to control unmanned aircraft. Garuda markets its products for a variety of uses that range from land and agricultural surveys to security, search and rescue, and logistics.
- Edall Systems: a Bangalore-based company that provides engineering, design and manufacturing services, drone development, and unmanned aerial vehicle training programs for students and professionals. The company also builds parts for India’s National Aerospace Labs, as well as the Defense Research and Development Organization.
- IdeaForge: recently developed the Netra UAV in collaboration with the DRDO. The Netra UAV is a surveillance quadcopter drone used primarily by India’s Central Reserve Police Force and the Uttar Pradesh Special Task Force. Although IdeaForge primarily focuses on security and surveillance services, it also provides a services such as geographical mapping and surveying, oil and gas pipeline monitoring, aerial cinematography, crowd management, real estate photography, and event management.
- Aurora Integrated Systems: a Bangalore-based company that provides drone technology to India’s Defense Research and Development Organization as well as directly to the Indian Army. The company’s fleet includes the Urban View, a lightweight reconnaissance drone, and the Altius MK-II, a medium-range, medium-altitude autonomous vehicle that can be used for surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance.