“Aim for the sky and try developing more-advanced unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) despite being incapable of developing far less-advanced UAVs over the past 28 years.” That’s what best exemplifies the track record to date of the MoD-owned Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO), notwithstanding the tsunami of congratulatory messages that start flowing in from the MoD and DRDO every time a ‘desi’ UAV’s experimental technology demonstrator takes to the skies. Below is a brief track record of the DRDO’s UAV R & D efforts.
Following EX BRASS TACKS in 1986, there arose a requirement by the Indian Army for a tactical UAV capable of conducting battlefield surveillance. Consequently, it was decided in September 1988 that the DRDO’s Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) would indigenously develop this 380kg UAV, known as Nishant.
The Army finalised its General Staff Qualitative Requirement (GSQR) in May 1990, following which the first Nishant UAV technology demonstrator made its maiden flight in 1995. It was rail-launched from a hydro-pneumatic launcher imported from Finland, while its powerplant was a VRDE-developed twin-cylinder RE-2-21-P piston engine developing 21hp and weighing 10.5kg. By 2002, the Army had placed an order for eight Nishants along with two ground control systems worth Rs.800 million (US$17.9 million).
User-assisted trials commenced in late 2008 and the confirmatory user trials at Pokhran were conducted in February 2011, following which the first four UAVs and their launch vehicles were delivered. However, the Army in 2015 refused to place a follow-on order for eight Nishants (each costing Rs.22 crores) and two ground control systems after a spate of crashes involving the already-delivered Nishants.
Recovered by a parachute, the Nishants were invariably damaged structurally and rendered unusable for long periods.
A wheeled version of the Nishant, named Panchi, has been under development by ADE since 2013 and its first technology demonstrator, powered by a VRDE-developed four-cylinder RE-4-38-P engine (developing 38hp and weighing 22kg), made its maiden flight on December 24, 2014. No orders for this UAV have been placed by any end-user so far.
The ADE-developed Rustom-1 tactical UAV is powered by a single imported Lycoming O-320 engine developing 150hp and it made its maiden flight on November 11, 2009. Its production deliveries were due to commence in late 2013, but to date that has yet to happen.
The Rustom-2 MALE-UAV, powered by twin imported Austro Engine AE300 diesel engines each rated at 170hp, made its maiden flight on November 15, 2016. Its design was completed by February 2012 and in September 2013 a Rustom-2 technology demonstrator without any mission payloads began full-power taxi trials.
To be co-developed by the MoD-owned DRDO, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL) at a cost of US$46 million, ihe initial requirement for this MALE-UAV is for 76 for all three armed services. The 3rd and 4th airframes underwent a design validation phase that ended in January 2016 and are meant for technology demonstrations and technical trials by the ADE. The 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th airframes for user-evaluations have been ordered as well.
Today, the Rustom-2 minus its mission payloads weighs 2,400kg and efforts are on to try to reduce it to 1,700kg ONLY AFTER delivery of the first 24 airframes to the end-users, which have mandated that the Rustom-2’s multi-sensor payloads must weigh no more than 360kg and its endurance should be 25 hours.
The DRDO has so far claimed that the Rustom-2 will be capable of undertaking surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations and will therefore be capable of carrying different combinations of payloads, such as medium-range electro-optic (MREO) sensors, long-range electro-optic (LREO) sensors, synthetic aperture radar (SAR), electronic intelligence (ELINT) sensors and communications intelligence (COMINT) sensors.
However, only R & D work by IRDE on developing MREO and LREO sensors and by LRDE on SAR have been launched to date. The Ku-band SAR employs a mechanically steered planar-array antenna, instead of an AESA antenna as is now the global norm.
Thus far, no R & D work has been initiated on the development of either compact COMINT/ELINT payloads, or a Ku-band SATCOM-based data-link system for beyond-line-of-sight flight-/mission-control.
Homegrown Mini-UAVs & Micro-UAVs
Since the previous decade, the ADE along with NAL and CSIR have developed several types of mini-/micro-UAVs, but none of them have as yet entered service.
HAL on the other hand has taken a route of its own when it comes to developing or marketing UAVs.
Lastly, there are the UAVs being offered by private-sector entities.