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Defence startups and long term plans

Startups in Defence are few in numbers and when the field is narrowed down to their specific participation in the aerospace industry, the numbers get fewer.

On the one hand it has to be remembered that even after Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Startup India program in January 2016 with a slew of facilities to attract young entrepreneurs to give wings to their ideas and innovations, the time is too short for his proposal to germinate.

One event that shook the nation around the time Modi made his Startup appeal –the terrorist attack on the Pathankot airbase in Punjab in the beginning of the new year-drew the spotlight, once again, on the Netra unmanned aerial vehicle.

The quad-rotor flying platform had already captured the imagination of the nation when it was used in a popular film but every disaster does bring to the fore its usefulness.

It also highlights the advantages that homegrown solutions to security problems and the synergy between the military requirement; the civilian entrepreneurship and the curatorship of the Defence Research and Development Organisation.

More such arrangements should be the order of the day if India is to achieve a larger measure of indigenization of defence equipment.

While the Netra was available for use in an emergency, there are many other emergencies and exigencies where a tool or an equipment is urgently required by the Armed Forces or the security personnel deployed in internal security duties.

If such requirements are projected among techie fraternity, it is possible that it will spark an idea or an innovation that will fit the qualitative staff requirements of the security forces.

The Netra for instance fulfils the requirements of not just the Army, but also the Border Security Force, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the Central Police Forces and even the police of States afflicted by the Maoist insurgency.

The Netra is amenable to improvement and it is learnt that both its range and its endurance are to be enhanced.

In the context of a different genre of UAV-the fixed-wing type-another Indian private sector firm has brought forth a blueprint for the landing gear for the Indian medium altitude long endurance (MALE) drone called Rustom II being developed by the DRDO.

This is a crucial equipment which is very necessary for the launch and recovering of fixed-wing drones. For some the requirement is for fixed external landing gear while for others where the platform must be vested with aerodynamics that facilitate range and endurance the landing gear preferred is the retractable kind where the entire assembly including wheels are drawn into the belly of the UAV.

Such subsystems, though disjointed, contribute to the cost-effectiveness of the whole platform. It is one more percentage in the contribution of indigenous systems to military packages which would otherwise have to be imported at considerable foreign exchange outlay.

It is by such contributions that the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) flourish and the indigenous ecosystem is nourished and nurtured.

This process becomes more pronounced in an atmosphere of denial of technology as part of punitive sanctions or policy to restrict dual-use technology to prevent proliferation (though the latter has proved to be a farce given the manner in which nuclear weapons technology and delivery systems have grown horizontally).

There has been positive gain in the development of “add-ons” that enhance war fighting in the larger startups-in-defence context.

For example, STRATEGIC AFFAIRS in its earlier columns had pointed to the absurdity of deploying hand-held thermal imagers at the level of the section of ten infantrymen.

This instrument even while enabling detection of enemy positions at night requires that it be put down before the infantryman can use his rifle to shoot. That meant that the gunman would once again relapse into a “blind” state while firing his weapon.

Understanding this dilemma an Indian defence startup company has evolved a lightweight, small thermal imager that can be used in the hand-held mode (for surveillance) and it can be clipped on to the rifle or the helmet to be used as a sniperscope leaving the hands free to fire the weapon.

Given the requirements in the thousands this product promises to be lucrative for the entrepreneur and very useful and cheap for the military.

This interest in sensors and imaging is particularly gratifying because leading companies and their governments make it a point to impose restrictions in the transfer of technology in this field. In the past India has suffered deprivation in this technology because of the reluctance to part with the technology that would cater to the generational growth in capabilities.

A better idea of how startups can change the ecosystem can be obtained from the manner in which one such company has taking the commonsense approach to military requirements.

It has developed bio-bandage that helps clotting (and hence prevent death due to excessive bleeding on the battlefield). Little wonder that the product has been snapped up by scores of commanders in the field using their discretionary funds for the purchases.

There is great commercial potential also in war gaming and simulators and training aids that preclude the use of actual machinery to save on wear and tear of expensive platforms like aircraft.

In the same vein, with the intention of maintaining the health of the equipment there is need for periodic tests in the area of deployment (which in most cases is on the perimeter hundreds of miles from maintenance, repair and overhaul facilities) there is a requirement for test chambers for diagnostics and checking on the effect of extremes of temperature on the equipment.

Digital imaging and direct-to-commander videography that can enhance battlefield awareness are now beginning to become available from indigenous sources.

Newly in the market are gadgets like 3D geospatial platform for real-time operational planning, enabling faster and critical decision making. Such devices are capable of integrating interactive devices, software and terrain data to plan actual operations. Such is the potential in the field of defence startups.

In the field of aviation and aerospace, India has long been a player in constructing aircraft door fixtures and tail assemblies for the aviation majors like Boeing and Airbus.

While these are lucrative avenues of earning foreign exchange, they do not serve the purpose of bringing in high technology to enable India to product improve and leapfrog knowhow and know-why. India is in dire need of technology of, for example, single crystal compressor blades for engines (which have application in both civil and military aviation) as well as many of the systems and subsystems that go into making an aircraft. Long strides have already been taken in creating indigenous avionics especially for military applications.

Yet there are wide spaces for import substitution in aviation and the aerospace industry that are waiting to be filled.