Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are an exciting field in the world of aviation, with new R&D and system discoveries. Over the next decade, UAVs will become a significant component of military and civil aviation.
With increasing intrusions from Pakistan and China, India is planning to deploy more UAVs along border to maintain round the clock surveillance. India, last year sought from the US 100 latest unmanned aerial vehicles, both armed and surveillance versions, to bolster its arsenal amid recurring incursions by its hostile neighbors.
India had requested for the latest Avenger drones, which is basically an unmanned combat air vehicle. It has also sought Predator XP category which is a surveillance version for internal security issues and terrorist threats.
India has already deployed Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) along the rugged mountains of Kashmir for surveillance, as well as on the disputed border with China where the two armies have faced off against each other.
India plans to have more UAVs deployed at forward operating bases to keep a close watch on any suspicious activities.
Now India is keen to have armed UAVs. Last year India had accelerated plans to buy drones from Israel that can be armed. Indian government approved the air force's request to acquire 10 Heron TP drones from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) that can be fitted with weapons to engage targets on the ground. The employment of armed drones for precision strikes will make it easier for the Indian military to neutralize targets of opportunity in scenarios where sending in Special Forces would be too risky or complicated.
Moreover India would like to also mount its own weaponry on an Israeli supplied drone, helped by close technological cooperation.
India has been trying to develop its own combat drone (Dynamic Remotely Operated navigation equipment), but the DRDO is struggling to integrate a missile onto the proposed Rustom series of UAVs.
With even Pakistan now sporting an armed UAV developed with Chinese assistance, India has decided to accelerate the development of its own weaponized drone fleet. Though China has no public strategy for armed drone development, but it has poured resources into UAVs and has shown them off at exhibitions. However, experts believe that Chinese combat drones still lag far behind the Israeli-made ones in terms of capability.
Only the United States, Israel and Britain are known to have used armed drones in combat, although more than 70 countries have UAVs with surveillance capabilities.
However, the process of weaponizing an indigenously developed UAV has commenced and the elements required to operate an armed drone fleet, such as a high accuracy satellite-based augmentation system (SBAS) and dedicated military communication satellites, are being put in place. Work is also underway on a stealthy unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV).
According to the DRDO, it has integrated a locally developed anti- tank missile called the HELINA with the Rustom-I. Taxi trials have been completed.
While integration with missiles such as the HELINA also indicate a potential anti-armor role for the Rustom-I, it could certainly be used in strikes on remote terrorist camps or for that matter on small vessels on the high seas. Indeed, the first military user of the Rustom-I is likely to be the Indian Navy rather than the Indian Army, which still wants certain features added to the Rustom-I before it agrees to induct it.
GAGAN is crucial for way point navigation of Indian UAVs and will assist them to both “get back home” in the event of a link failure with their ground control stations (GCS) as well as make emergency landings on alternate airfields. Both of these aspects naturally assume even greater importance when a UAV carries on board weapons. Of course, the availability of high quality satellite navigation signals are also very important for precision strike purposes.
Indian armed drones in the future will also be able to operate over extended ranges as the Indian military inducts more dedicated military communication satellites. Indian Navy's GSAT-7 can also relay signals in the Ku-band and this can be used to control Indian UAVs, which will feature a Ku-band transmitter data link. The Indian Air force and Army are meanwhile looking forward to their own joint military communication satellite called GSAT-7A, which will also have Ku-band transponders.
In some ways the stage is being set for the indigenous UCAV program that is currently focused on developing a sufficiently stealthy platform, release of weapons from an internal weapons bay, and materials for all-aspect stealth. The first flight of this UCAV is expected to take place in the early 2020s. By that time, the support elements required to exploit such a system are likely to have matured in India.
The UAV is an aerial vehicle with no pilot to man controls. They can be remotely controlled by personnel on ground or by pre-programmed flight plans. Of late, the UAVs have become increasingly more sophisticated, and the term UAV has been changed to UAS, an acronym for Unmanned Aircraft System.
The change amplifies the fact that apart from being an aerial vehicle, this complex system includes ground stations, satellite connectivity, sometimes onboard weapons, and other components. Militarily these systems are gaining tremendous importance, as they can conduct precision strikes on faraway targets without collateral damage.
Despite this, India still has to make some progress on the collision avoidance technology needed to give its drones the flexibility to use civilian airspace. It will also need to increase satellite bandwidth considerably to increase the tempo of armed UAV flights.
Without a collision avoidance system, India's Directorate General of Civil Aviation will obviously not conclude an agreement with the military to allow UAVs to transit civil airspace. Moreover until the Indian military can put up a large enough constellation of military communication satellites, armed drone operations will be somewhat limited.
UAVs can fly autonomously based on pre-programmed flight plans or more complex dynamic automation systems. UAVs are currently used for a number of missions, including reconnaissance and attack roles. UAVs come in a wide range of sizes, from those resembling toy planes-with length and wingspan of just a few centimetres-to the latest variant of the US's Global Hawk, the biggest in the world, stretching 13.5 metres with a wingspan of 35.4 metres. They fly at different heights, depending on their size, range and speed, from the smallest ones which go up to an altitude of 600 metres, to the hypersonic, which rise to over 15,000 metres, and the orbital, which enter the low earth orbit.
The military role of UAV is growing at unprecedented rates. Rapid advances in technology and as the capabilities grow for all types of UAV, nations continue to subsidize their research and development leading to further advances enabling them to perform a multitude of missions. UAV no longer only perform intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, although this still remains their predominant type. Their roles have expanded to areas including electronic attack (EA), strike missions, suppression and/or destruction of enemy air defense (SEAD/DEAD), network node or communications relay, combat search and rescue (CSAR), and derivations of these themes.
• Target and decoy-providing ground and aerial gunnery a target that simulates an enemy aircraft or missile
• Reconnaissance-providing battlefield intelligence
• Combat-providing attack capability for high-risk missions
• Civil and Commercial UAVs-UAVs specifically designed for civil and commercial applications.
Because UAVs are not burdened with the physiological limitations of human pilots, they can be designed for maximized on-station times. The maximum flight duration of unmanned aerial vehicles varies widely. Internal combustion engine aircraft endurance depends strongly on the percentage of fuel burned as a fraction of total weight and so is largely independent of aircraft size. Solar electric UAVs hold the potential for unlimited flight.
The function of a UAV is determined by its payload. The payload is directly related to the task. Similarly, for ELINT, a UAV would carry an ELINT payload, and for hunter killer missions, appropriate explosives which it can either launch or crash with them into a designated target in an attack and self-destruct mode.
In the event of undertaking an offensive task, the payload would comprise the guidance system with two suitably armed missiles.
The US military began experimenting with unmanned aircraft as early as World War I. By World War II, unmanned craft could be controlled by radio signals, usually from another aircraft. Vehicles that could return from a mission and be recovered appeared in the late 1950s.
The earliest attempt to use the UAVs was as aerial targets in 1915. The first operational usage began in 1959 when the US Air Force (USAF) officers commenced planning for unmanned flights to avoid losing trained pilots over hostile territory. This plan gained further momentum when Gary Powers piloting a U-2 spy aircraft was shot down over the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1960. This propelled a classified UAV program to be started under the code name Red Wagon.
The UAVs were used in August 1964 in clashes with the Vietnamese Navy in the Gulf of Tonkin. Thereafter, the USAF 100th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing flew more than 3000 sorties during the Vietnam War.
The initial generation of UAVs were primarily used for surveillance. With increased operational requirements they were armed and they became known as Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles. (UCAVs). Broadly military UAVs are used for surveillance, direction of artillery fire, gathering Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) information, lasing targets for fighter aircraft and Post strike Damage Assessment (PSDA).
The Indian Armed Forces have been operating UAVs for over a decade. The Indian Army was the first to acquire UAVs, in late 1990s from Israel, and the Indian Air Force and Navy followed.
The Indian Army initially obtained the Searcher Mark I, followed by the Searcher Mark II which could operate at an altitude ceiling of 15,000 ft and finally the Heron, which could operate at an altitude ceiling of 30,000 ft. The Indian Air Force immediately followed the Army and acquired the Searcher Mark I followed by Searcher Mark II and acquired the Heron UAVs prior to the Indian Army. The Indian Navy also acquired the Heron UAVs which suited its long range off shore requirements.
The UAVs could be employed for multifarious tasks. UAVs are great force multipliers and there must be synergy between the three Services to optimize their employment. Presently, the three Indian Services have a rather limited numbers of these aerial vehicles and each Service is looking towards its increasing individual requirements. There should be a phenomenal rise in their numbers in the coming years.
The Herons have been able to fly in dual role and thereby fly at ranges of 400 km. In high altitude areas, there are screening problems sometimes but they are easily overcome through satellite communications (SATCOM). That helps extend the range of these systems to even 1000 km. The Searcher Mark II is being used in the mountainous region as also in the plains and semi deserts.
Many terrorists and militants in the north or north-east regions of India hide in areas of thick foliage. There is a need to obtain high quality Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) devices on UAVs to generate good images.
There is a dire requirement of UAVs at the tactical level which needs to be provided to force multiply results at the ground level for undertaking missions with accurate intelligence. Given the hostile situation India may face weaponizing these UAVs will be very critical in the near future. The versatility of the UCAVs has been demonstrated particularly in strikes against terrorist camps in Iraq and Afghanistan.
UAVs are beginning to play a greater role in India's defence planning. The cost effective UAV represents a viable way to conduct effective maritime patrols of critical sea and to monitor its contested land borders with Pakistan and China.
Now the Indian military is exploring the potential of mini UAVs and therefore the Indian Army has proposed to equip all infantry and mechanized battalion with a new squad of mini UVAs. Soon a proposal to buy almost 1800 mini- UAVs, along with ground system and support will be cleared.
Indian Army is looking to raise a squad of 600 mini UAVs for a range of applications. The army is looking for UAVs with a range of atleast 10 km with all weather capability and loiter time of 45 minutes.
The Mini UAV is of simple technology and could be indigenously developed. This could meet the tactical requirements.
Further in future directed energy weapons too can be mounted on UAVs for effective usage.
Indian defence forces have finalized a blueprint to procure more than 5,000 UAVs over the next 10 years for about US $3 billion.
In the future, the private sector will be involved in a big way to meet all future requirements of UAVs.
In the next few years, the Indian Army proposes to equip UAVs down to the battalion level, while the Air Force plans to have fully operational squadrons of surveillance UAVs and UCAV.
The plan includes the induction of many man-portable mini and micro UAVs for short-range surveillance, and nuclear, biological, chemical detection in the battlefield.
The Indian Army, Air Force and Navy propose to buy tactical UAVs, high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) UAVs, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) UAVs, and medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAVs.
For naval patrolling the demand for MALE and tactical UAVs could rise.
DRDO is also effectively developing many UAVs at various levels which will certainly bridge the gap of tactical requirements. DRDO is also supplying about 25 Netra micro UAVs to Indian paramilitary forces. In addition, DRDO also has an independent unmanned surveillance air vehicle on the drawing board, which is similar to the X-45 and X-47 developed in the US and is also scouting for a partner to develop a solar-powered HALE UAV.
In future UAVs will not only be used for bombing , surveillance or reconnaissance. Due to ist vast potential it can be used for peacetime applications as well and demand for which will increase drastically in the coming years.
The only challenge remaining will be the legal framework for the regulation and use of unmanned aerial vehicles so that they are not misused.
The UAVs can be game changers with respect to generating data for GIS (geographic information system) applications. Drones will not create new GIS applications but will rapidly expand existing markets because they can access data less expensively than current methods. In other words, it will be far less costly to task a drone to gather inferred data from a forest flyover than, as in the past, to use a pilot and plane to collect the same data.
UAVs can be effectively used for remote sensing, weather monitoring, oil and gas exploration, transmission line monitoring, surveying, filmmaking, precision farming, terrain extraction, digital image analysis and 3D topographical imagery analysis.
UAVs have immense potential. They can be suitably used for hurricane hunting, 3D mapping, wildlife protection, riot control, agriculture and search & rescue operations.
In India there are also a number of private Indian companies working on both the hardware and the software of UAVs, though they sell exclusively to the government. In India the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has no policy or institutional framework in place for them and hence their civilian use is banned.
However around the world UAVs are being used for many commercial purposes. They can be used for logistics - in the US, Amazon uses them to send packages, Dominos to deliver pizzas. They can help in agriculture-in Japan, drones are employed extensively for pesticide and fertilizer spraying, mapping soil conditions and crop growth. They can provide all kinds of surveillance - of transmission lines, oil and gas pipelines and more; help with oil and gas exploration, can be used around mining zones to protect against illegal extraction of reserves as well as for mine hunting operations, they can be used for earth mapping and even for detailed visual media coverage. They can even help in healthcare, transporting human organs for transplants at short notice.
UAVs have shown their worth in many military and civilian operations in the past and their role in the future will certainly grow manifolds. However a lack of clear policy guideline on operating this technology becomes an obstacle sometimes. Though there are possibilities that this technology might be used by few non state actors but nations need to find ways to ensure safe usage of this highly potential technology.