The Future of Drones in India: Threats, Operations & National Capabilities

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According to Mr Peter Rimmele, any nation that shuts its eyes to this technology would undoubtedly find itself unable to compete militarily with nations that are heavily invested in this technology. He related it to the recently concluded war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the first in modern warfare to be won almost entirely by the strength of drones. Armenia, which fought with conventional systems, was resoundingly defeated by Azerbaijan, which relied to a great extent on drones.
Need for Agreements
“The low cost and easy accessibility of drones pose a disquieting danger, as they could fall into the wrong hands of non-state actors such as terrorist groups,” Mr Peter Rimmele cautioned and stressed the need for development of defence technologies for the safety, security and protection of the civil population and the nations. He also advocated international, multilateral agreements on the availability of drone parts, and regulations concerning their sale to mitigate such dangers.
He pointed out that both India’s eastern and western neighbours have access to drones; China has even reached US standards with its CH4 and CH5 drones. Turkey and Pakistan are moving towards closer alliance. Given such circumstances India’s investment in such technologies appears mandatory.
He added that as the resident representative of the KAS-India office, a foundation that works tirelessly for peace, prosperity and security throughout the world, it is essential to remain realistic about the dangers that both countries could pose to the entire Indo-Pacific region at large, and to avoid underestimating them.
Air Marshal M Matheswaran (Retd) AVSM VM PhD, Chairman & President, The Peninsula Foundation, Chennai in his opening remarks spoke about a study done by US Air Force in 1995 and released in 1996 titled, ‘Air Force 2025.’
This study predicted that other nations could catch up with the military strength of the US with air power. The study also covered in detail the future threats from air and about drones. It highlighted the need for a Global Information System and integration of all drones through a dedicated network and generation of 24 x 7 information flow. The predictions of the US Air Force have indeed come true.
Evolution of Air Power
Air Marshal S Varthaman (Retd) PVSM AVSM VM VSM, Distinguished Fellow of TPF and former AOC-in-C of Eastern Air Command, traced the history of the usage of air power ever since the Wright brothers took to the sky in 1903 and spoke of its deployment from the World War I to the Gulf War, its use by terrorists like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) against the Sri Lankan army and Al Qaeda’s crashing of planes into the twin towers of World Trade Centre and other targets in the 9/11 attack.
He did not agree with the contention that when the drone attack happened in Jammu, India was caught napping. He said that India is as prepared as any evil thinker can think of and that we have offensive capabilities. He opined that offence is the best form of defence. He led the conversation with the panellists and moderated the discussions, chipping in with his expert views and comments.
Drones and Non-State Actors
Air Marshal B Suresh (Retd) PVSM AVSM VM, Former AOC-in-C of Western Air Command, spoke about India’s operational preparedness and the global aspects. He pointed out that non-state actors have been the biggest beneficiaries of drone technology. Different kinds of payloads can be delivered even in micro UAVs, he said and added that an impact fuse had been used in the Jammu drone attack. He listed that drones are used by three categories of people:

  • State actors
  • Non-state actors with the implicit backing of states
  • Non-state actors acting independently.

According to him, the second group is the most dangerous as they get access to technology. Listing out various global drone attacks, he pointed out that in most of the attacks, the targets were static. Mobile, underground and camouflaged targets are different and difficult to attack.
He listed out weather, altitude and terrain as the challenges in deployment of drones. He discussed the different technologies now used in drones. Swarm Technology, though not widely used, is seriously considered by our defence team, he said and added that for offensive use, drones must have penetration, range and survival capabilities.
There have been cases of drones used for recreation causing havoc. The regulatory framework for commercial and recreational drones during peacetime is not adequate. It needs to be updated and put in place, he remarked and said that all drones must be registered and geo-fencing made mandatory.

Manned–Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) will play a big role in the fighter pilot environment in the future and India must get on board MUM-T so that it is not left behind. ~ Group Captain M J Augustine Vinod (Retd)

Detection of Drones
Group Captain M J Augustine Vinod (Retd), Director, AutoMicrOUS, explained about a successful demo project carried out by his firm for the Indian Air Force, by launching a swarm of 11 drones with autonomous mode using AI and Machine Learning, at Pokhran range, at 50 degree C, as part of Meher Baba Swarm Drone competition. Data link forms the backbone of swarm drones, he explained and said that there is a wide scope of playing with the images and interpreting the data generated by a drone.
He dealt with the challenges of detection of drones which is essential to counter security threats and listed three ways in which drones can be detected–using drone radar, intercepting data link between drones (electronic triangulation) and using acoustics. He reckoned that acoustics showed greater promise than the other two.
He said that a defensive system against drones is a very costly affair. He batted for retaliating any drone attack with a much powerful drone attack. He also suggested that India must have a drone command and it must fit with the overall theatre command.
He also said that Manned–Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) will play a big role in the fighter pilot environment in the future and that India must get on board MUM-T so that it is not left behind. There are lots of opportunities for deployment of drones in civilian use and especially in the construction industry, he said and referred to a Goldman Sachs report on the same subject.
Need for Robust Design
Prof P M Soundar Rajan, NIAS, Bangalore and Former Director, DARE, DRDO, spoke about his work on drones during his stint at the DRDO and the importance of electromagnetic shielding. He brought out the limitations in the current generation of drones and stressed the need for a robust design. He covered the communication, navigation and surveillance aspects of drones.
He stated that communication in drones is data linked and very easily jammable. Having a robust communication system is expensive and civil drones may not be able to afford that cost, he said. He added that for the current drones, the internet will be the core of operation.
He pointed out that the GPS system used to control navigation of drones is highly vulnerable. According to him, vision-based navigation is a promising development. He recommended certification of dual use drones.

…the 2014 notification banning civilian drones was a dampener in developing national capabilities in drones and set us back by at least five years. ~ Mr Sai Pattabiraman

Focus on Manpower
Wing Commander David Devasahayam (Retd), Operations Director, Cyient Solutions & Systems, Hyderabad, highlighted the issue of manpower required to operate drones and their knowledge and skill sets. “They must be familiar with the technology, knowledge of operating systems, and understanding of the air situation both from a military and civil perspective. This is an area that merits consideration,” he said.
According to him, miniaturisation and improvement in the payload quality need to be looked at. Meteorology is another focus area especially when we operate in high terrain areas. He pointed out that the knowledge base in terms of meteorology for an operator should be of a very high order. Commenting on the drone regulation, he remarked that unless we make things friendly for people to fly drones, we will not be able to make much progress. “Drone regulations must be made by the operators and with the help of air force personnel, drawing on their experience,” he said and added that the drone regulation which the present civil aviation minister has announced is a welcome step.
National Capability
Mr Sai Pattabiraman MD, Zuppa Geo Navigation, Chennai, talked about the national capability in drone technology and the steps to be taken to achieve dominance in this domain.
According to him, the 2014 notification banning civilian drones was a dampener in developing national capabilities in drones and set us back by at least five years. This led to proliferation of illegal smuggling of Chinese drones, he lamented. Though the regulation was removed in August 2018, there are still grey areas, he said.
He explained how the automobile sector can be used to benchmark drone industry and brought out the similarities between the two in cost, ownership and distribution. He also noted that miniature cameras and sensors for drones are developed based on their application in mobile phones. On certification of drones, he opined that military application drones need certification but it is not advisable to make it mandatory for civilian drones. It will increase the cost of drones and customers will not be ready to pay for it, which in turn, will lead to development of a clandestine market.
Threats and Opportunities
Mr Abhishek Jain, Vice President – Strategic Partnerships, Zeusnumerix, Pune, said that the fuselage of the drone is not that important. It can be easily made even from 3D printing but it is the electronics and the source code of the autopilot that are critical to a drone.
He also explained why drones are an excellent option for enemies of India. He listed out design flaws, ad hoc and temporary arrangements and lack of solid research, enemy capabilities, laziness, obsolescence and lack of vision as India’s key threats. He recommended that sufficient time frame must be given for designing and making drones. Abhishek stressed that India needs to focus on indigenous autopilots, miniaturised motors, battery development and its optimisation and propeller manufacturing. According to him, swarming drones should not be made mandatory everywhere and Kamikaze loitering munitions should be developed before armed drones.
He listed out India’s enthusiastic manpower and the availability of schemes to fund the manpower as positive aspects. “We need a national UAV road map and we need to fund it. We cannot miss this bus,” he appealed.


We discussed small and miniature drones. What about the need for making large drones like the Searcher and Heron which can loiter over an area for 3 to 4 days with an eye that does not blink?
Prof P M Soundar Rajan: There are two approaches to making drones: the aircraft angle and the other one, the RC (Radio Controlled) toy approach. For large drones, DRDO has been going with the aircraft approach. DRDO may not have been highly successful here, but they have vast expertise. We can even convert unreliable aircrafts into drones using autopilot, for one way missions.
India can also make large drones like the Searcher with the support of private enterprises. We have data link and flight control technologies. DRDO lost out to Searchers only because of the sensors. The users found the sensors in Searcher drones more useful than those in the DRDO-developed drones. So we are now focussing on developing smart sensors in India.
Certification of drones has been a main issue as it involves cost. We are now familiar with our requirements and this too can be addressed.
Abhishek Jain: We need to invest in IC engines to power large drones. These engines can also be used in many areas, other than drones.
Air Marshal B Suresh: Even during earlier times, we had large benign drones. But the Air Force lost such drones in hostile environments. So for large drones, I advocate one-way drones. We have offensive capabilities but we need to develop capability to pinpoint the author of an attack on us.
Can you elaborate about the national UAV roadmap and funding?
Abhishek Jain: Motor development has been a problem area. Most of the smaller drones need sophisticated and reliable motors. For defence systems, we require high performance motors. I believe that the brain of a drone has to be indigenously developed.
Sai Pattabiraman: We have very good indigenously developed auto-pilots with our own patented technology. We have used them for UGVs, boats and tractors. I agree that we need to develop motors and batteries for drones in India. There are incentives for making in India, electronics and related products. Electronics supply chain has today shifted from system level to component level. In the future, it will shift from component to raw material level. This is a reason why we are able to get today sensors, processors and chips at a fairly low cost. This will evolve as the industry evolves. But what is important is that there has to be sufficient industry demand to absorb the supply chain. If we build the national capability and the industry, then rest of the things will fall in place.
Air Marshal Matheswaran: China has 120 satellites dedicated to ISR alone (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance). Going into the brain of the drone, the chip is the most important. The battle between US and China is on the technology front. China heavily depends on other nations for its semiconducting chips. They have plans to make at least 50% of these in China between 2030 and 2035. India is completely dependent on imported chips and we need to focus on the chips.
Air Marshal Varthaman: Manufacturing chips requires huge investment and rare earth minerals.
Sai Pattabiraman: We need investors. Unfortunately, most Private Equity investors are ready to fund APP based developments that will give quick returns, say less than six months. They shy away from investments in the manufacturing sector. We developed autopilot in 2015 and got our funding from TIFAC from the Department of Science and Technology. Getting funds for expansion became impossible. We also need large volumes to attract funding.
Air Marshal B Suresh: As a user of drone components, I have an observation. The product support ecosystem in India has been a big issue. It needs to be greatly improved.

Mr Peter Rimmele, Resident Representative to India, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung

Air Marshal M Matheswaran AVSM VM PhD (V), Chairman & President, The Peninsula Foundation, Chennai

Air Marshal S Varthaman PVSM AVSM VM VSM (V), Distinguished Fellow of TPF and former AOC-in-C of Eastern Air Command

Air Marshal B Suresh PVSM AVSM VM (V), Former AOC-in-C of Western Air Command

Gp Capt M J Augustine Vinod (V), Director, Automicro UAS

Prof P M Soundar Rajan, NIAS, Bangalore. Former Director, DARE, DRDO

Mr Abhishek Jain, Vice President – Strategic Partnerships, Zeusnumerix, Pune

Mr Sai Pattabiraman, MD, Zuppa Geo Navigation, Chennai

Wg Cdr David Devasahayam (V), Operations Director, Cyient Solutions & Systems, Hyderabad