A Very Brief History of Drones In India
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A Very Brief History of Drones In India

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After the introduction of the new Drone Rules 2021, here’s a quick look back at the history of drones in India

The Ministry of Civil Aviation has replaced the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Rules 2021, which were notified in March this year, with the new, liberalised Drone Rules 2021.

The Ministry notified the drone rules on 26 August, after feedback from academia, start-ups, and other stakeholders supposedly indicated the earlier drone rules to be “restrictive in nature”. According to a statement by the Ministry of Civil Aviation, India has the potential to be a global drone hub by 2030. The new drone policy is expected to help in fulfilling this potential.

As we move into a new drone regime for India, here’s a brief look back at the history of drones in India.

Looking Back: Drones In India

The Indian Army was the first to acquire unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs in the late 1990s from Israel, and the Indian Air Force and Navy followed suit.

India first used military drones during the 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan. At first, the Indian Air Force deployed manned English Canberra PR57 aircraft for photo reconnaissance along the Line of Control, but this system proved highly inefficient and strategically weak over the mountainous Kargil terrain.

After India lost a Canberra PR57 to Pakistani infrared homing missiles, Israel discreetly supplied the Indian Air Force with the IAI Heron and Searcher drones, which were useful for acquiring target information along the Line of Control.

Since Kargil, India has procured numerous Israeli military unmanned aircraft. In 2009, the Indian Air Force purchased 10 Harops in a $100 million contract with Israel Aerospace Industries In 2013, the Indian Air Force made a $280 million deal with Israel Aerospace Industries for a new series of Heron medium-altitude, long-endurance drones.

In June of 2013, India began deploying Heron surveillance drones in a limited capacity over Maoist rebel strongholds in the east. Such activity has been limited to Andhra Pradesh-Odisha and Andhra Pradesh-Chhattisgarh. These states are densely forested, so the UAVs have been of little use in reconnaissance and surveillance.

Back in the 1990s, the Indian Army bought Israeli drones for recce and surveillance, but in 2019, India procured 54 Harop attack drones from Israel. The Air Force already had an inventory of around 110 of these drones.

These drones are equipped with electro-optical sensors to loiter over military targets such as surveillance bases and radar stations before exploding them. They have been designed to have a minimal radar signature, allowing them to perform stealth operations. Meanwhile, state-run Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and a clutch of private Indian companies are making drones and developing UAV technologies. DRDO has developed its own domestic UAV/UAS program. The project aims to develop a domestic arsenal to replace and augment the existing fleet of unmanned vehicles. Examples include:

DRDO Lakshya

This is a target drone used for discreet aerial reconnaissance and target acquisition. It is launched by a solid propellant rocket motor and sustained by a turbojet engine in flight.

DRDO Nishant

It has been primarily designed for intelligence-gathering over enemy territory. It is also used for reconnaissance, training, surveillance, target designation, artillery fire correction, and damage assessment.

DRDO Aura

Similar to the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, this is a stealth drone capable of releasing missiles, bombs, and precision-guided munitions.

DRDO Rustom

Modelled after the American Predator UAV, the Rustom is a Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) system. Like the Predator, the Rustom is designed to be used for both reconnaissance and combat missions. It is expected to replace and supplement the Israeli Heron model UAVs in the Indian Air Force.

These drones can travel at 200 kilometres per hour (km/hr) and fly at altitudes of 6,000-10,000 feet. A higher version of MALE can fly up to an altitude of 30,000 feet and travel over 200 km/hr. HALE or High Altitude Long Endurance drone can go beyond 30,000 feet. In India, the use of all aerial vehicles, manned or unmanned, are governed by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), and foreigners are currently not allowed to fly drones in India.

Notably in 2018, Harshvardhan an Indian teen, invented a drone to detect and defuse landmines. He watched a YouTube video where soldiers were trying to defuse a mine, and the mine exploded suddenly, injuring several of them. He, thus, designed a drone that could detect the mines without seeing them off, and then drop a marker to allow mine clearers to detonate them safely.

There are more than 100 million active landmines across the globe and such drones would be useful to save thousands of lives across the world.

Evolution of Drone Use

The development and use of drones occurred predominantly in the context of warfare by the military until the end of the twentieth century when flying remote-controlled aircraft grew significantly as a hobby.

Drones are, however, evolving into mainstream civilian purposes, akin to the internet and the global positioning system (GPS), which were initially used in the military. The use of drones is rapidly expanding to commercial and civil government applications like scientific, recreational, agricultural, product delivery, aerial photography, infrastructure inspections, drone racing, policing and surveillance, firefighting, and more.

Drones are a common sight even in weddings across India. Civilian UAVs now vastly outnumber their military counterparts. One would attribute this to the lowering costs of production and the increasing usability of maturing technology.

With the new Drone Rules 2021, individuals as well as organisations in India are set to find it easier to own and operate drones, setting the stage for the wider use of drones in the country.

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