Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have dreamed the Aatmanirbhar Bharat dream amid the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, but start-ups have since then taken up the cause and are focusing on Made in Solutions to create a self-reliant India.
In February 2021, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said attaining self-reliance in the manufacturing of defence equipment was important to maintain India’s strategic autonomy. While addressing the audience at an industry event, he revealed that the government aimed to bring down defence imports by at least $2 billion by 2022.
“Our commitment is to ensure that technologies developed by the start-up ecosystem act as force multipliers to the Indian military’s operational and combat capabilities,” he added.
According to a report by Maier+Vidorno, the aerospace and defence industry is a strategically important sector in India and is expected to reach $70 billion by 2030.
India has around 194 defence tech startups building innovative tech solutions to empower and support the country’s defence efforts. ideaForge, Tonbo Imaging, CM Environsystems, and VizExperts are among those building innovative solutions to strengthen India’s defence efforts. The central government is backing innovation through its Innovations for Defence Excellence (iDEX) initiative.
Mobile Autonomous Robotic System (MARS) UGV by Torus Robotics
Chennai-based Torus Robotics was launched in 2019 to help the Indian armed forces with modular Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV) that could cater to diverse mission requirements.
Founded by SRM University alumni M Vignesh, Vibhakar Senthil Kumar, and K Abbhi Vignesh, Torus Robotics is involved in designing, developing, and delivering fully electric unmanned ground vehicles for the Indian defence services. The UGVs are equipped with six degrees of freedom (6DOF), a robotic arm for detection, identification, and disposal of life-menacing unidentified objects.
Co-founder and Director Vignesh M revealed that the trio opted out of campus placements and decided to get into defence robotics solutions.
“The Indian armed forces suffered its worst loss in 20 years when four heavily armed terrorists launched a grenade attack at a camp in Uri on September 18, 2016. This was our eureka moment and we decided to develop Unmanned Systems to aid and safeguard the lives of our Indian Armed Forces,” Vignesh said.
Torus was launched exactly three years after the Uri attack — post rigorous research and multiple interactions with the Indian Armed forces to understand their requirements.
Start-up India recognised Torus Robotics also won the label of “Pioneer Defence Innovator” by IDEX-DIO. It also built Mobile Autonomous Robotic System (MARS) UGV for Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).
Kochi-based EyeROV is working towards enabling efficient underwater inspection with its marine robotic solutions and solving problems for several industries, such as defence, ocean research organisations, shipping, oil and gas, infrastructure, and construction.
Founded in 2016 by Johns T Mathai, and Kannappa Palaniappan P, EyeROV is developing India’s first commercial underwater drone for remote inspection of offshore assets.
Johns explained that underwater inspection was more challenging than land or air inspection because human divers have to deal with high water currents, poor visibility, and a hostile environment because of wild marine creatures. Apart from this, divers can only dive up to a certain depth
The founders felt that a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) could help solve these problems.
“With human divers, there are either inspection delays or lack of expertise. They are able to dive only up to 30-40 metres, whereas an ROV drone can go up to 100 or 200 metres below sea level,” Johns explained.
The start-up’s first industrial-grade underwater drone EyeROV Tuna was commercially launched in 2018. It claims the 50cm X 50cm X 50 cm cube-shaped ROV has completed more than 1,000 hours of underwater inspection of dams, bridges, ports, ship hulls, oil and gas assets, and other critical underwater structures across 25 projects in five states.
EyeROV, which won the iDEX Defence India Startup Challenge in 2019, onboarded Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) as its first customer. Backed by Maker Village Kochi, Kerala Startup Mission, and GAIL, the Start-Up has completed over 15 pilot projects for Adani Power, Coastal Police, BSF, Kerala Fire and Rescue, Kerala Police, and Assam Fire and Rescue.
Iowa and Chennai-based Vinveli is building indigenous UAVs or drones for Special Forces under the Ministry of Home Affairs, such as the National Security Guard and the Central Reserve Police Force, and the Ministry of Defence.
The start-up was founded in 2014 by Gokul Anandayuvaraj, an aerospace engineer from the University of Texas, along with his college friends Yuan Qu and Eshan Halekote. The Iowa Startup Accelerator-backed Start-Up has been manufacturing and supplying drones to India’s special forces since 2016. Gokul had explained that the start up builds the drones on receiving orders from the clients. The start-up works with them to thoroughly understand the requirements from the UAV and builds them accordingly.
“Our drones have helped save lives in the battlefield as the machine is placed in front of the commando, taking the first hit while eliminating the enemy,” Gokul said.
Vinveli also has two Indian patents. According to the start-up, its launcher and firing systems are completely indigenously designed and manufactured; the raw materials are also procured locally.
Mumbai-based ideaForge is a popular name in the defence and surveillance sector. The drone start-up, which claims to have over 90 percent of the market share in the security and surveillance segment, was founded in 2007 by IIT Mumbai alumni Ankit Mehta, Rahul Singh, Vipul Joshi, and Ashish Bhat.
The company is involved in manufacturing drones for defence, homeland security, and industrial applications. ideaForge’s drone have been deployed by the Indian armed forces, central armed police forces, and state police forces. It also has industrial customers in geospatial surveying, oil and gas, mining sectors.
In March, the company raised Rs 15 crore from BlackSoil in a venture debt round. Prior to this, tech giant Infosys also invested in the company. In January, ideaForge bagged a $20 million contract from the Indian Army for delivery of its high-altitude variant product – Switch Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV).
According to the company, Switch UAV is an indigenous system developed to cater to the most demanding surveillance operations of the Indian Armed Forces. The Fixed-Wing VTOL (Vertical Take-off and Landing) UAV has been designed to be deployed at high altitude and harsh environments for day and night intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.
In April 2020, it joined hands with police forces in Sangli (Maharashtra) and Guwahati (Assam) to deploy its drones for surveillance and monitoring COVID-19 social distancing norms during the lockdown.
Ahmedabad-based Optimized Electrotech is an electro-optic start-up that provides security and surveillance solutions.
It was founded in 2017 by Anil Yekkala, Dharin Shah, Kuldeep Saxena, Purvi Shah, and Sandeep Shah. The start up provides electro-optics systems, which can be used for the surveillance of smart cities, satellite-based imaging, border surveillance, medical imaging, access control, machine vision, automotive (advanced driver-assistance systems, i.e., ADAS) and consumer electronics.
Sandeep said, “We work with Homeland Security (MHA) and Defence (MOD). Our products are useful to the CISF for guarding strategic assets; they help the BSF, ITBP, AR, and Coast Guard keep a watch on trespassing at borders. CRPF, all central and state police forces can use them for better law implementation within cities, and the army, IAF, and navy can use them for Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR).”
He added that the first line of products is deployed for border surveillance and defence purposes. The upcoming lineup of products will be used for smart city surveillance and in the automotive sector.
In April this year, the start-up raised $1.8 million in its pre-Series A round led by Venture Catalysts. The funds were to be deployed for designing new-age surveillance systems, product innovations, and building more prototypes to be used in the railways sector, and smart city and intelligent border projects with a market potential of $7.3 billion.
The products offered by Optimized Electrotech operate using electromagnetic spectrum. According to the company, different parts of the spectrum provide different insights into the images captured. The start-up works with 400 nm to 12μ range, the visible light spectrum, to provide image analysis for several applications such as border security, machine vision, etc. Its InfiVision product series can detect a tank from a distance of 30 km.