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Exclusive: Indian Army acquiring AI-equipped high altitude UAVs and swarm drones for attack operations

Picture of flying drone

While the Army has been using drones for surveillance operations over the past 20 years, recent conflicts along India’s borders have driven the defence forces to adopt fixed-wing and swarm drones for attacks. 

As questions over retaliation arise after India suffered its first-ever drone strike on its territory with an attack on an Indian Air Force base in Jammu, it is important to note that the Indian Army, recently, has been amping up its arsenal to acquire artificial intelligence-equipped drones that can be deployed during various attacking scenarios.

MediaNama in the past one-and-a-half months has come across and reviewed two tenders floated by the Indian Army which lists out its requirement for —

  • Two fixed-wing drones for high altitude area (HAA) with capabilities of explosive payload delivery, and
  • Swarm drones for kinetic strikes

These tenders are available publicly on the defproc.gov.in website, the official defence procurement website. Both types of drones have been listed for the use of the Simulator Development Division (SDD) of the Indian Army. The Indian Army describes the Secunderabad-based SDD as the nodal agency for the development of simulators for the army. Essentially, what it means is that drones will be used for training and R&D purposes for army personnel.

Various reports on Monday said that a terror attack took place at an air force base in Jammu with the use of drones in the early hours of Sunday. Two IAF personnel suffered minor injuries in the explosions that took place at the base at around 2 AM, an NDTV report said. The attack took place hours before Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Army Chief Gen MM Naravane began a three-day tour of Ladakh.

Fixed-wing drones will provide ‘moral ascendancy to troops’: Indian Army

In the tender for these drones, the Indian Army noted its usage in Operation Spring Shield in Turkey, drone attacks on Saudi Aramco oil refineries by the Houthis in Yemen, and during the armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

“Presently, fixed wing drones are the mainstay of combat operations worldwide. This is a potent aerial platform which will provide tremendous moral ascendency to the troops operating on ground besides providing immense advantages at strategic and operational level,” the Indian Army said.

Army’s requirements

  • Basic parameters: The drone should be able to travel up to 100 km (one way) from its base along a given course and with explosives, up to 30 kg, carry out its intended mission and return without refuelling. Each fixed-wing drone should be capable of launching from a maximum altitude of 4.5 km above mean sea level (AMSL). It should be operational up to 7 km AMSL
  • Speed and endurance: Minimum speed of these drones will be around 200 km/h with a 30 kg payload. These drones should have minimum endurance, which is the total duration of a UAV in flight, of 240 minutes with the payload. The drone should have short take-off and landing capability with maximum payload
  • Data and communications: Drones should have the necessary communications equipment to facilitate beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations. SDD also asked bidders to coordinate with them to identify munitions that will be integrated into the drones. The following features are to be considered —
    A. Queuing data for targeting
    B. Passing data for activation of munition
    C. Course correction

Apart from that, the SDD has strictly asked bidders that all communication protocols have to be on an encrypted link.

  • Ground Control System: Bidders should also establish a ground control station based on open system architecture. It should have —
    A. 3 touch-enabled tablet/laptops
    B. 45′ screens for displaying mission parameters
    C. Check validity of intended mission
    D. Implement emergency action plan to retrieve the said in case of failure
  • Automatic target recognition via artificial intelligence: Capability of detecting differentiation humans from armoured fighting vehicles. It should be able to identify tanks, military trucks, light vehicles and so on by “integrating advanced computer vision/image processing with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) algorithms”.

The drones developed by the prospective bidder will be first evaluated by the SDD. The open system for the ground control will also be tested by the nodal agency. The selected bidder will have to conduct their demonstration between 2-4 weeks at a location decided by the Army. The Indian Army has also said that bidder should have the capability to undertake mass production of 5-10 such drones per year.

Swarm drones to help army in obstacle-ridden terrains

Swarm Drones, as the name suggests, are a cluster of 12 drones that is capable of attacking together (in a swarm), controlled by remote ground control stations. It can be used to deploy kinetic (lethal) strikes at 2 km AMSL with surrounding features of conducting surveillance and aerial data relay.

“A number of military operations performed in Built Up Area, Desert, Plains and Obstacle Ridden Terrains involves high risk and danger to the soldier and assets involved in operations like surveillance, logistics, communication and special operations. The battery operated, silent swarm of drones at these terrains can be developed which can perform multiple offensive tasks as per the operational requirement of the IA under direct control and supervision of local field commander,” the tender read.

How does the swarm technique work? : In the tender, the Army said that the swarm architecture must be able to work in collaboration with a networked architecture. It should be able to execute swarming characteristics of flocking, schooling, and foraging. It should also have features that prevent collision with other drones in the swarm. During an engagement, the Indian Army said that it should be able to select and prioritise targets, and then carry out precision strikes. These are the different swarm modes that the Indian Army requires —

  • Flock/sync mode for keeping position
  • School mode for navigation an area collectively
  • Forage mode for an autonomous distributed search of a given area

Basic configuration requirement

  • The Swarm configuration of drones will have a minimum radius of action of 7.5 Km Each drone will be electric battery operated.
  • Drones should be optimised design for operation in a built-up area, desert, plains and obstacle-ridden terrains.
  • Capability to execute maximum payload capacity of 1 Kg excluding surveillance payload.
  • Endurance of drone in the swarm configuration to be a minimum of 45 minutes.
  • Option of return to home with selectable points en route

The drones also have to be equipped with artificial intelligence, similar to the high altitude drone. It should be able to differentiate between citizens and soldier concentrations, identify armoured fighting vehicles, helipad markers and so on. For kinetic strikes, the Army said that the drones should be able to hit targets that move at a speed of 50 kmph.

The Army has asked the prospective bidder to demonstrate the capabilities of the swarm drones within 2 weeks since their appointment. “The bidders should also have the capability to undertake mass production of minimum 10 sets of 12 drones each in a year..,” the tender document read.

On 15 January this year, the Indian Army showcased, for the first time, swarm drones with offensive capabilities such as conducting kamikaze attacks on targets such as enemy tanks and so on. The Army had showcased a system of 75 drones, a report by The Print said.

‘Drone adoption by Indian armed forces for attacks have increased in last 2 years’

Although drones have been in use by the defence forces for more than 20 years, it was restricted until recently, to surveillance operations, experts said. It was the recent cross-border conflagration with India’s neighbours and the usage of drones in international conflicts that propelled the Indian Armed Forces to start adopting UAVs for attacks.

Avdhesh Khaitan, founder and CEO of Kadet Defence Systems said that he first noticed a change in the adoption of armed UAVs when he noticed a Request for Information (RFI) that the Army had floated for loitering munitions two years ago. “Certain events such as cross-border conflicts, primarily with China has increased the Army’s reliance on drones,” Khaitan, whose company produces defence UAVs told MediaNama.

“Technology in this regard also has matured over time. Thirdly, the army is also realising that the time lag between sensor to shooter has to be reduced. For this instance the armed forces have given out specific requirements for armed UAVs, especially loitering munitions. This is a significant change in focus in the armed forces,” Khaitan said. Time lag refers to the time taken for a command to reach an UAV.

Wing Commander Sreedhar Pollu, founder and CEO of Hyderabad-based RedBay Technologies also attributed the adoption of UAVs by the army to developments in technologies, especially sensors and the development of micro energy sources.

“The improvements in sensor technologies, miniaturisation of electronics & Development of potent micro-energy sources including smaller powerplants have brought forward very advanced and latest generation weapon platforms which can be effectively operated remotely. These platforms are cost-effective solutions to multiple and complex operational scenarios wherein putting forward a manned mission would prove to be very risky and expensive, in-case of losses,” Pollu told MediaNama.

The newer advent has been the Small & Micro category , viz less than 20 kgs MTOW (Max Take Off Weight). These category platforms are now being inducted in large numbers to provide real-time tactical advantage to the forces. Since the battle envelope size is shrinking and most of the environments are resulting in close combat battles. These scenarios require quicker reaction and instantaneous inputs to the commander. This has led to back-pack systems that are light weight & can be activated immediately. Further improvements in Artificial Intelligence coupled sensors which can provide intelligent pre-processed outputs, has also resulted in active deployments — Wing Commander Sreedhar Pollu, Founder and CEO of RedBay Technologies.

Challenges myriad for defence drone industry

The biggest challenge that defence drone companies or startups are facing currently is regarding procurement policies of the Indian Armed Forces. Although the barriers for entry in the commercial drone industry is low when it comes to supply, the defence requirements are high and complex.

“Although the armed forces are encouraged to directly engage with startups, we have realised that it is challenging for MSMEs to work with the former. There are multiple reasons, but mainly they are commercial in nature — payment cycles, the requirement for financial guarantee and so on,” Khaitan of Kadet Defence Systems said. The company currently works as a subcontractor with the Indian Armed Forces on certain projects.

Barriers in the commercial drone industry is usually very low and anybody can enter this space. However, when a company decides to supply drones for defence, complexity in terms of requirements, hostile conditions in which the operations have to be done, kicks in — Avdhesh Khaitan, Founder and CEO of Kadet Defence Systems

Wing Commander Pollu said, “The defence and government procurement policies should be really aligned to true indigenous and Made In India products. The user agencies should interact more transparently with the Industry and implement projects that can be undertaken from the Concept stage in a much faster and efficient manner by channelising development funds directly to the Industry entities. The procurement cycles also should be reduced in time frames and quicker procurements should be possible.”

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