Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)

UAVs are becoming increasingly sophisticated and intelligent, being a major force multiplier with no risk to human life are going to dominate the future battles. The article dwells upon their military uses, Indian perceived requirements, future developments, and how India can promote its defence industry and collaborate to achieve self reliance in UAVs and possibly export them.

Unmanned vehicles (aerial/ground/underwater) will be the major force multipliers in the future battles as they are not only economical to develop and maintain than the conventional war fighting machines but also reduce the risk of human life. In recent years the capabilities of unmanned vehicles have been employed over a larger spectrum of combat roles, including armed-combat support with remarkable success. UAVs have been employed over a larger spectrum of air-power roles in armed-combat support which has lead to development of weapons specifically designed for use on armed UAVs and future unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs).  A UAV platform offers the same capability as the guided missile of Brilliant Anti-Tank (BAT) weapon system, which had a series of small, unpowered glide-bomb sub-munitions that could be released from a guided-missile platform originally fired from a plane to destroy tanks.


Initially the UAVs were largely used with a Military objective with functional applications such as targets and decoys, reconnaissance and surveillance, loitering missiles, combat, communications and logistics, currently the UAVs/drones being applied in every sphere. Some of the applications in various sectors are shown in the diagram below.

As the Directorate General of Civil Aviation has issued the Civil Aviation Requirements (CAR) for civil use of Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) commonly known as drones. The role and responsibilities of the operator and owner has been distinguished, areas for operations identified and excluded areas clearly defined, and procedures for obtaining permits and licences are also in place. The Digital Sky Platform is the first-of-its-kind national unmanned traffic management (UTM) platform that implements "no permission, no takeoff" (NPNT).' The Digital Sky would be a mobile app with an automated process that permits or denies the request to fly instantly through seamless coordination with the national defence and civilian air traffic controllers (ATCs).The regulation will be effective from 1st December, 2018, the civil sector application will gather momentum.


The majority of UAVs or remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) inducted into the Indian armed forces are with IAF. The IAF has Harpy & Harop UCAVs in its inventory from Israel Aerospace Industries. These UCAVs are hunter-killer drone but do not carry any munitions like the US UCAVs but acts like a flying missile and explodes itself on a pre-programmed target.  Request for information have been issued for 150 more MALE UAS, 400 Small UAS systems, 1000s of Mini/Micro/Nano UAS, and rotary wing UASs. Other security agencies like CRPF, NSG, Police, etc., also have a demand with varying numbers for mini UAVS, VTOLs and medium UAVs of more than 400 in the next one year itself. The requirements for the security forces are exceeding 10,000 UAVs of all types in the next 3 to 5 years.

Main Sub Systems and Indian Capabilities

The main sub systems of the platform includes:-

  • Aero Structure.
  • Aero Engines.
  • Avionics for Automatic Take-Off and Landing.
  • Automatic Flight Control Systems navigation and collision avoidance systems, data links and remote controls for operation of payloads.
  • Payload to meet its mission requirements such as day and night cameras, various types of radars and scanners, communications and intelligence sensors, Arms and Ammunition etc.
  • The Ground Control Station.

The Indian public sector monopoly in research and production remains a double-edged sword in regard to development. Though, the govt has issued almost two  adozen licenses for manufacturing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and its sub systems to Indian private players as shown in Table. However, presently the capability for UGVs & UUVs are at a nascent stage and the opportunities for private investment have not been a realistic prospect for the Indian market.

Aero structure manufacturing expertise is limited by availability of materials and gaps exist in manufacture of major undercarriage, primary structures, rotors, etc. There is need to enhance national capability for manufacture of engines, systems and advanced payloads, Drones Air Traffic Management System and Counter Drone Systems, MRO, spares, upgrades and life extension/recertification services etc. Counter drone technology is rapidly evolving in response to fears over malicious use of drones by terrorists, enemy forces or even deliberate incursions into privacy.

Emerging Market Opportunity

The Intelligence Surveillance &Reconnaissance (ISR) market comprises of both highly valuable manned surveillance platforms and increasingly popular and numerous unmanned surveillance platforms.  The manned platform encompasses a vast range of systems from large airliner-based Airborne Early Warning And Control (AEW&C) and Airborne Early Warning And Control Systems (AWACS) to Maritime Patrol Aircraft’s, Electronic intelligence (ELINT) Aircrafts and airships; while the unmanned platforms are the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or Systems (UCAVs/UAS) which are gaining popularity keeping in view the cost effectiveness in the future Network-centric warfare (NCW) Battlefield.

The developed countries are seriously thinking to replace the manned platform with unmanned platform (UAV/UCAV/UAS) of the tactical aircraft inventory in a ratio of 30 % to 50% by 2020s. The Indian Armed Forces is also likely to reduce the high ratio of manned platforms from present 95% to 50% by 2027 and beyond in a phased manner. Need to have a balance fleet of manned & unmanned aircrafts for the future battle scenario. The future would also see the entry of directed energy weapons mounted on UAVs for effective usage. Projections show that India is likely to spend about US $11.15 Billion on acquisition of Manned ISR Platforms, while as for the Unmanned ISR Platforms it is expected to spend $6 billion by 2027.

India's present holdings of UAVs are extremely low and there is a need for greater quantities to meet battlefield requirements for the future. They need to have a balance fleet of manned & unmanned aircrafts for the future battle scenario. The future would also see the entry of directed energy weapons mounted on UAVs for effective usage.

There are reports a deal is being negotiated between India and the US for the purchase of the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk, a HALE Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) with extraordinary ISR capabilities, providing near-real time, high resolution imagery of large geographical areas both during the day and night, in all types of weather having an endurance of over 24 hours and can operate at an altitude of 60,000 feet. Indian Navy and Indian Air Force are already making plans towards the procurement of the weaponised Predators and Avengers from General Atomics on an FMS (Foreign Military Sales) route. India has sent letters of request for 22 Guardian drones and three electromagnetic catapults.

Software Development

Surveillance UAV is only as good as the data analysed from it. OEMs of several countries have research teams that invest heavily in Image Processing based data analysis, data archival and conversion of data to 'information'. Foreign OEMs will be loath to share source codes of such critical and sensitive technology. Another similar area will be development of system for the Guidance, Navigation and Controls of the UAVs be it LTA, Pilotless Target Aircraft (PTA) or Satellite UAV (SUAV).

For PTA it may be required that some of very important threats be simulated as close as it can be. This can be done using modifications to the PTAs like making the Radar Cross Section or IR Signature closer to the threat. Development capabilities will have to be developed here too. For LTA systems having large surface area, flexible solar panels will enhance the operational scenario.

It is imperative that there is separate mission mode program for development of such technologies. Necessary Super-computing facility can be easily arranged and the challenge will be development of such team and interaction with forces. The challenges in terms of afford ability, interoperability, systems commonality and a growing need for integrated operations during production, configuration control and retention of high quality / integrity is likely to be an issue. The latest technology will enhance the endurance, control systems, autonomy, multi vehicle integrated missions and interoperability. As technology advances, the capabilities of these vehicles will grow dramatically over the next 10-15 years.

The Way Forward

Against this backdrop, India must aspire to be the global hub for design, development and manufacture of all types of UAS and associated payloads and avionics. A liberal FDI regime that removes unnecessarily restrictive clauses such as local content, equity capping, offsets etc. should be removed to attract Global OEMs to participate. A matrix of the operational requirements will have to be created by the user in consultation with industry. Design, manufacturing and user teams along with chosen foreign partners can deliberate on low cost solutions that are usable in multiple environments and threat scenarios. Since this exercise will take time, selection of 'inexpensive' platforms with nearly 30-50% match in Operational requirements can be used as a stop gap.

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