India in the age of swarm drones

Small, lightweight, low in unit cost, but cutting edge in technology – swarm drones can help India gain the upper hand in a number of sectors from warfare to emergency first-response.

Swarm drones, which were once confined to the world of science fiction, are fast becoming a reality.

Their development and deployment will profoundly alter the nature of warfare, surveillance, emergency first-response, logistics and data communication. As India ramps up its technological capabilities in this high-growth sector amidst a broad push for defence indigenisation, a plethora of opportunities open for private players both at home and abroad.

Related stories: Drone operations, India’s secret weapon against Covid-19

Quantum computing and the brave new world

What are swarm drones and what can they do?

A new breed of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with vastly greater prowess than their predecessors, has been developed as the aerospace industry harnesses the power of AI and machine learning. The ability of these devices to operate independently as well as in coordination with multiple UAVs is underpinned by artificial swarm intelligence that reflects the collaborative behaviour exhibited by birds and insects. They can be launched from land or air, running autonomously or with human control, engaging multiple targets with stealth and pinpoint accuracy, with sizes ranging from just a few inches to several feet across.

Why does this matter? When smart drones operate in swarms, traditional air defence systems are often unable to counter this threat, rendering vital civil and military installations at risk of either espionage or physical attack. Assassinations too become easier.

The threat is not futuristic. In early 2018, two Russian military bases in Syria were swarmed by thirteen armed drones, while in late 2019, oil fields in Saudi Arabia were hit by Houthi rebels using a combination of eighteen swarm drones and cruise missiles. While these attacks involved relatively unsophisticated systems, the continuous improvement in AI points to far greater risks in the future. As the threat of asymmetric warfare grows, be it in cyberspace or in the skies, acquiring intelligent swarm UAV capabilities has become equally important a deterrent as developing anti-drone technology.

What is India’s plan?

India has been a target of asymmetric warfare in the western theatre, and with a new threat emerging in the north, the government has prioritised upgrading its weapons systems. Furthermore, the military nexus between China and Pakistan has ensured that advanced drone technology will be passed on from the regional hegemon to the vassal state. In order to immediately address these concerns, India is expanding its existing fleet of Israeli “Harop” and “Harpy” kamikaze style smart UAVs that survey, loiter, and attack – self-destructing on the target. While these lack swarming abilities, it is a quick fix for now. Taking cognisance of the fact that dependency on imported weapons blunts strategic autonomy in the long run, the government has embarked on several ambitious plans to develop both conventional and swarm drone technology in-house. The multimillion-dollar projects encourage the private sector to participate in various parts of drone R&D, design, development and production under the new FDI rules. Therein lies the opportunity.

Drone development in India

Building on the earlier home-grown programmes which delivered surveillance drones like DRDO’s Rustom series, the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) is working on the Ghatak, a large combat UAV, or UCAV, with stealth technology. Meanwhile, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) signed a deal with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to manufacture the armed Heron TP drones starting this year.

Under the Defence Technology Trade Initiative (DTTI) the US and India will jointly develop swarm drones and anti-drone systems – a significant step which would bring experts from both countries together to share knowledge. The US has already demonstrated swarm capabilities utilising over a thousand drones, matching that of the Chinese, and with the COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Arrangement) passed, transfer of technology and data sharing has become easier. Co-developing a product like FLIR’s Black Hornet 3 would be an example of useful collaboration considering Indian needs. It is palm-sized and is used by soldiers on the frontlines or in counter-terror operations by giving them a significant tactical edge through real-time surveillance.

A drone sprays disinfectant onto a residential area during the government-imposed lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 in Chennai, India.

Running parallel to international collaborations, HAL is working with an Indian startup, NewSpace Research & Technologies on a kamikaze swarm drone nicknamed “ALFA-S.” These small, battery-run drones would be 3-6 feet across and can be launched in the dozens from aircrafts, including a “mother ship” like the C-130 transport plane. Navigating and loitering for up to two hours through enemy airspace at speeds peaking at 100 km/h, this set to be similar to the Israeli “Harpy” in some regards, except with the much-valued swarm capability, coordinating with other drones in its fleet. Meanwhile, under development, is HAL’s munition-loaded semi-autonomous “Wingman,” similar to Boeing Australia’s “Loyal Wingman” unveiled this year. It would operate in a fleet teaming with a fighter jet, providing cover and surveillance, thereby safeguarding the pilot and widening the scope of cross-border missions.

Additionally, in late 2018, the Indian Air Force started a three-phased competition named the “Mehar Baba Prize” to get young scientists and engineers to develop a fifty-strong swarm drone package that would ultimately serve in logistics optimisation and disaster management. The $15 million deal would involve the production of drones which help the IAF transport essential goods to and from frontline positions like Siachen, the Line of Control and Line of Actual Control.

An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft (RPA). The range of sizes in drones is wide, as are the functions, requiring unique engineering solutions for each component of the drone.

Opportunities across the supply chain

Small, lightweight, low in unit cost, but cutting edge in technology – swarm drones rely on advanced electronics, AI and machine learning. With limited infrastructure required for production, prototypes can be developed with low sunk costs. The low barriers to entry should support early stage development, enabling innovators to find backers in the venture capital space.

That said, data collected by Inc42 suggests that VC funding for Indian drone startups was a mediocre $17 million against a global deployment of $2 billion between 2014-2018. China’s low-cost drones have been indirectly subsidised by the state in order to gain market share while investment in its domestic industry was fourteen times that of India. Despite a patchy history in terms of funding, over a hundred drone startups are operational in India. Companies like IdeaForge, Detect Technologies, Cron Systems and Aarav Unmanned Systems continue to innovate in key areas of crossover technologies that could be used to support the defence industry.

Increased focus on self-reliance would imply that domestic developers of motion capture cameras, night vision sensors, thermal imaging devices, precision lasers, accelerometers, and gyroscopes that fit the high standards of the military projects, would benefit. The range of sizes is wide, as are the functions, requiring unique engineering solutions for each component of the drone. Specific materials for both small and large drones will be required, and new unique lightweight products created. Battery technology, like lithium-sulphur, also must develop over time in lockstep with the demands on the machines.

Looking forward

The Indian government is acutely aware of the risks of asymmetric aerial warfare and is committed to investing in state-of-the-art swarm drone capabilities. The numerous collaborative and standalone projects are building on years of expertise in this field. Taking this forward in an FDI-conducive environment, a competitive landscape inviting new drone technology vendors will develop as the project pipeline for swarm drones grows.

Surya Kanegaonkar is a commodities professional with ten years of experience in research and trading for a hedge fund, utility and mining.


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