What Ails our Unmanned World? A Possible Way Forward
I sat through and spoke at a very comprehensive and an excellently conducted Seminar on UAVs at the IDSA. At the end of the day, my take-home thoughts were as under:-
• While we seemed to know everything that constitutes the body of knowledge on all matters unmanned, there was no common thread which could connect, convert and deliver something concrete and tailor-made from the service providers to the users.
• Leading international OEMs represented by their Indian representatives were eloquent in explaining (read hard-selling) their individual products but they were not really clear as to what the user actually requires and where were the technology gaps to be filled . Most presentations ended up in user asking for the detailed proposals on file later.
• The sparse Indian unmanned Indian industry players seemed very much in their infancy and baby steps as they tried to present the details of their small core-competencies, equally in the dark as the foreign OEMs.
• The Indian and global industry players sat as two separate verticals, one big and one small, quite disconnected though some alliances (read JVs/Tie Ups et al) have just about happened or beginning to.
• The most positive thing was the bright spark of Indian intellect, represented by various IIT teams and some other leading scientists . Their well anointed and technologically rich presentations left nobody in doubt that all the contours of the cutting edge unmanned technology were well within their intellectual prowess. In any case, where was the doubt? By the way, six out of the 20 semi-finalists in the recently concluded World Cup on Drones (Drones for Good) in Dubai have been Indians (mostly IITians) in tie up with other world players.
• While various groups (read Directorates) pitched for their perceived UAV requirements, there was no consolidated requirement statement, that could have threaded all the small pearls into one necklace cutting out the duplications. Having such a thing on a tri-service format could be nothing more than a distant dream.
• A quiet disconnect between the user-industry-intelligentsia was difficult to be missed
• In keeping with the aim of the event and the time available, while the proceedings discussed all shades of UAV requirements in the combat domain a whole new emerging and exciting world of drones in the civilian world remained outside the scope.
• In keeping with the above, while there was a talk on the huge problems of air space management in the Tactical Battle Area or TBA, the larger issue of insertion of the unmanned platforms in the Indian Civil Air Space was only mentioned in the passing, being out of focus area.
It is my personal belief that the Indian Unmanned industry has not bloomed the way it should have. It has remained stifled for more reasons than one which need to be remedied. What are these? I offer my perceptions on the anomalies and a way forward.
• As an unquestionable first, there is a requirement to clearly draw out a UAV Road map for the Services much like Space Roadmap or the Roadmap for development of defensive NBC capability.
• Since the utility spectrum of the unmanned machines is far too vast (from surveillance to mapping, to reconnaissance, to rescue, to station keeping and much more), there are multiple set of users that require the UAV both in the armed, as well as the unarmed versions. There is thus a strong case to evolve consolidated requirement debated discussed and finalised over a period of time, removing duplications.
• In evolving consolidated requirement there is a fundamental need to remain anchored to “what is operationally required” rather than what is possibly available. I am not linking that to costs, I am linking that to justifiability and hence the rationale of getting it yesterday. Such requirements could manifest in such variables as speed, range, altitude ceiling, endurance, weapon carriage, night capability, stealth signature and more.
• The above Roadmap could initially be evolved Service wise, which could be later stitched into a tri-service format by HQ IDS much as a part of the overall technology Development Map that already stands evolved for a three Plan period.
• The first reality check that the above Plan must be given is a thorough vetting and analysis by the Indian Defence Industry both public and private (DRDO, concerned DPSUs, Industry giants, MSMEs and more) including the intelligentsia (IITs, reputed Academic institutions et al).
• How will this happen? No captive classrooms but hundreds of them. Only the Roadmap needs to be put out initially to the internal environment (DDP/DRDO/CII/FICCI/MSME Chambers and more) and later to the global environment (RFP route). The decentralised exercise, so to say, should clearly indicate the following to the “interested parties” (the Services need not check who)
• What are the Services looking for in specifics over a period of time.
• Technology and product wise, what is already available in-house and for what there is a need to look outside.
• Once the above is done and things are put out in open (implying RFPs issued) then a hundred things, like the core competencies/financial worths/ business interests and more, duly modulated by the market forces will automatically decide who will make what, what tie-ups (JVs and MOUs) will take place, who will sell designs, who will sell software, who will make hardware etc etc. At least there won’t be a case when a prospective vendor rep stands at the rostrum and announces - We can do this .. Any takers???
• I know, what is true of the UAV is also true for many a niche technologies required by the Services. That is the reason the system is putting in place the mechanisms (not quoted, being classified) along the procurement chain (SCAP cycle and pre-run to it) all wedded to the aim of consolidating service requirements by cutting out duplications and giving a clear call, initially in- house and for the residual, worldwide. Also it is no secret, that we are still in infancy in this game
• In the context of Air Space Management, open sources only permit me to say that viable inter-service mechanisms ripened and matured over years of deliberations in the Joint Services Study Groups (JSSGs) are just about getting into place in trying to achieve near automation in the complex task of Air Space Control of manned and unmanned platforms based on such tools as Satellite Communications, auto data transmission and networked architectures, spanning across Service boundaries.
I say, the combat manifestation of UAVs/UCAVs is only a drop in the ocean, the real blooming of the unmanned is in the civilian world! Search and Rescue/ 3D Mapping/keeping Watch (Gorgon Stare)/Fashion /Entertainment /Business Delivery/ Agriculture/Wild-Life conservation/ Anti Poaching/Crowd Control/ Journalism/ Paparazi projection/ Gaming/ Racing/THE SELFIE FEVER... the list is endless. It is for no small reason that the futurist Thomas Frey has gone crazy in identifying 124 uses of the unmanned machines across 24 different categories! Our industry needs to grow in this direction. the world is already moving northwards.
While the unmanned in the civilian domain is a huge vertical by itself, I would just state some very critical and time urgent requirements:-
• As I have also said elsewhere in my written work, the DGCA needs to move forward of its blanket ban imposed on 07 Oct 14 whereby it has ruled, that no Govt agency, organisation or an individual will launch a UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) in the Indian Civil Airspace for any purpose whatsoever.
• While it is fully appreciated that the insertion of the unmanned platform in the national airspace that is increasingly getting congested with manned traffic is a huge challenge and the world at large is still grappling with the issue, there are ways to open up the Indian skies to the extent that the industry gets a breathing space.
• There is no point waiting for the ICAO to promulgate its regulations on Standard and Recommended Practices (SARPs) as that is likely only in 2018 (completion by 2025), by which time the Indian unmanned industry will suffocate to a slow grinding death with its wings chopped cruelly and if I may, unjustifiably.
• The MoD has to come good on its promise of making its Test Ranges available to the Indian private players for their R&D and testing out new products and ideas.
• The Unmanned Systems association of India (USAI) has to gain more traction. It needs to do the following urgently:-
• Cumulative and bring forward the representative voice of five different categories of players in the unmanned world (UAV Frame Constructors, Payload and System Manufacturers, Data Capture and Processing Service Providers, UAS Trainers and UAS Operators).
• Let the above voice bear upon the DGCA requesting the emphatically to selectively open the Indian skies.
• Bring forward the best brains in the industry to participate in the Indian Defence story as enumerated above.
• Establish institutionalised links with the hundreds of prospective users in the civilians world. Establish multiple business opportunities and growth links.
• Bring into India, the cutting edge technologies that still elude the indian intellect (unlikely).
• Explore export options for Indian product and Services. Study how the unmanned industry in countries like Japan, China and South korea is making such a postive contribution in their respective GDPs.
Way to go - unmanned Industry. Subject Matter Experts are waiting. All the best!