'Sky’s the limit' as India looks to become global drone hub by 2030

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has gotten behind ariel technology after launching the country's biggest showcase of drones, with plans to transform India into a global hub for locally made machines.

Last weekend's event came as Delhi limited drone imports in February, six months after easing rules to promote "Made in India" unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which developers believe could turn into a €1.8 billion home-grown industry by 2026 from a mere €7.2 million now.

“This is just the beginning,” Modi said as officials confirmed that 70 percent of Indian airspace had been freed-up for civilian drones already deployed for mapping, farming, meteorology, cinema, medical and disaster response.

Modi added that before “technology served only the elite, but today we are reaching its services to the masses and drones are an example”. Included benefits are the delivery of Covid-19 vaccines.

Future of drones

India estimates some 10,000 technicians would help manufacture UAVs, which will churn out 500,000 new jobs in the services industry by 2025.

According to Aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia: “Only sky’s the limit,” boasting that 14 of India’s 28 states – and a dozen federal agencies – had embraced drones, which have digitally mapped 6.5 million real estate properties across India.

Scindia added India hoped to become a global hub for drone production by 2030.

Modi reckons the country "is moving towards creating a strong drone manufacturing ecosystem ... through schemes like production-linked-incentives.”

But despite a reduction in the paperwork and promises of sweeping state support, only 270 start-ups at present assemble or manufacture UAVs for India’s million-plus military and civilian authorities.

Clear flight path

Former chief military scientist, William Selvamurthy, argues that more clarity is needed in rules on autonomous technologies – regarding navigation and payloads – as he believes liberal regulations will turn India into a buzzing drone hive.

“There are many industries which have come [to India], but what exactly needs to be done further is to have a very clear roadmap for the country,” Selvamurthy told NewsX TV station.

He also referred to a 29 January public display by 1,000 UAVs as a potential for developing “swarm technology with military application” for India.

New Delhi often blames rival Pakistan of being behind rogue drone attacks on Indian soil.

​​​​​Combat drones

The extensive use of UAVs by Russia and Ukraine has grabbed the attention of India’s military - the worlds fourth largest - but equipped with Soviet-era hardware, that has been shown to be unreliable in Moscow's war against Kyiv.

According to retired army major general GG Dwivedi: “Drones are changing the nature of the battlefield which we see in Ukraine or Azerbaijan or in Armenia and so, therefore drones are going to have huge applications across the board.”

The Delhi festival came just days after a state-run defence aeronautical firm unveiled a tactical drone that can loiter for 18 hours at an altitude of 5,500 metres.

The director of Aeronautical Development Establishment, Y Dilip, was quoted as saying: “It is pre-designed to carry certain weapons and can be converted into an armed platform.”

“Very soon it will be inducted into the armed forces,” he said of the Tapas BH-201, which is powered by Austrian engines and estimated to be eight times cheaper than imported battlefield drones such as the US-manufactured Reaper.

Military trials to start within six months

Trials with Tapas were likely to start in October before a limited number are handed over to the military next year, sources added.

The military last year put out several contracts for UAVs after Israel’s Elbit Systems tied up with Gautam Adani, India's richest man to locally build its Hermes-900 spy drone which can cruise for 30 hours at 9,000 metres.

“These marquee deals have opened the floodgates for indigenous drones and component-makers to thrive,” local UAV maker Ankit Mehta told The Print online publication.

An Indian defence ministry official quipped: “We are going beyond pizza delivery – and that too very soon.”

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