Plane taking off

View from India: Hop on a flight that takes you back and forth in time

Some sepia-tinted memories of India’s aviation history and Karnataka’s significance in its journey. And now drones have given the flying saga an interesting buzz.

The aeronautical industry in India took off in Bangalore in 1940 when a far-sighted visionary, Walchand Hirachand, joined forces with the then government of Mysore to establish Hindustan Aircraft. Planes like the Harlow Trainer, Glider, Hawk-P36 and Horlow-PC5 were manufactured by Hindustan Aircraft. The Indian government nationalised Hindustan Aircraft in 1964 and it became HAL, or Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, a defence public sector unit.

India’s first aerospace defence establishment, HAL has been extending the aviation frontier to newer heights with each new aircraft. HAL’s principal business lies in the design, development, manufacture, repair and overhaul of aircraft, helicopters, engines and related systems including avionics, instruments and accessories. Innovation, and employment in R&D units and aero-science organisations, have created a talent pool, unleashed cutting-edge technologies for commercial aeronautical and military purpose. All this has enriched the prosperity of Bangalore and put India on the global aerospace map.

“Companies such as Airbus, Rolls-Royce, Boeing and Dynamatic Technologies have spread their wings in Bangalore, the capital city of Karnataka. There are approximately 2,000 MSMEs [micro, small and medium enterprises] working in the aerospace and defence [A&D] industry,” said Gunjan Krishna, commissioner for industrial development and director of the Department of Industries & Commerce, Government of Karnataka, at the Airbus India TAKE OFF 2022 event.

Karnataka is home to around 25 per cent of India’s aircraft and spacecraft and contributes 65 per cent of the country's aerospace-related exports. Several dimensions make the state conducive for A&D: it is home to machinery and tooling industries, capital goods, and electronics that are among the building blocks of A&D. “There are around 85-plus fabless chip companies in Karnataka. New materials and composites are being explored for new-age aircrafts, based on parameters like safety and weight of the aircraft. For instance, NoPo Nano Technologies, a start-up, is manufacturing carbon nanotubes for building lighter rockets,” highlighted Krishna.

Over the last two years, the changing contours point to sustainability, a lesson gleaned from the pandemic. Sustainability and innovation can unlock economic prosperity. The Government of Karnataka (GoK) has shown resilience as essential services were supplied for the A&D industry during the pandemic. GoK has recognised A&D as an essential service. Going forward, GoK is preparing for creating a green hydrogen cluster in Mangalore. The recent Karnataka Aerospace and Defence Policy 2022-27 aims to make the state a preferred destination for A&D investments and offers several incentives to companies and manufacturing units in the A&D space, besides developing five aerospace and defence hubs in Bangalore, Mysore, Belagavi, Tumkur and Chamarajanagar. These hubs will also have special economic zones.

When we look at the pan-India perspective, a combination of technologies and skilled workforce has strengthened India’s position in the A&D sector globally. A talent pool of professionals with skillsets in artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics and quantum computing are other highlights. Consequently, the country is emerging as a supplier of A&D as global companies have looked at the demand coming from India. Now the mantra is to build for India and for the world; this is bolstered by the fact that the country is at a vantage point in terms of sea trade as the Indian Ocean is a gateway to the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean.

From time to time, the country’s defence spend has helped strengthen the Make in India vision in the A&D sector. Even as this article was going to print, there have been news reports about an Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) scientist making it to a top post in the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), a leading space advocacy body. AK Anil Kumar, a senior scientist at ISRO, has been elected the vice-president of the IAF. He is the associate director of ISRO's Telemetry, Tracking and Command Network in Bangalore. ISRO is the primary space agency of the Indian government.

Meanwhile the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) and UAS (unmanned aircraft system) landscape could revolutionise India. “Over 200 organisations constitute the service sectors of the drone ecosystem, 100 manufacturers work in the assembly and value added services, and 100 service providers offer surveillance solutions. In August 2021, GoI recognised the strategic opportunities of drones and liberalised the drone policy,” added Smit Shah, president of the Drone Federation of India.

Key takeaways from drones can unfold. For this, the drone ecosystem requires a talent pool, quite like the IT community. Jobs in the form of drone pilots may be waiting to be tapped. There could be avenues in the design, development, manufacturing and assembly of drones. Drones could open out vistas in finding solutions to threats and detecting false alarms. This is probably a nascent area. Multiple systems and robust command control operations may be other arenas to look out for. “Over the last one year, the government has given contracts worth ₹700-₹800 crore [7bn-8bn rupees, or approximately £76.8m-£87.8m]. The components will be indigenously designed, developed and made in India,” observed Dr Nagendra Babu Samineni, VP at EW Systems, Zen Technologies.

By 2030, India is projected to be a drone hub. Let’s look at some of the factors favourable for the development of drones. Training centres for drone flying have been established and the training ecosystem could be strengthened by increasing the number of centres and throwing open new ideas, particularly as around 52 per cent of the population is less than 30 years of age. “Our start-up was founded in 2015 and we focus on agriculture. Through innovation, the payload can be fitted for different applications; we ourselves are working on it. We did a survey of India and came up with digital land records that could be used while mapping out smart cities,” explained Agnishwar Jayprakash, founder and MD of Garuda Aerospace India Pvt. Ltd. The start-up has also worked with the forest department to address human-animal conflicts.

Apart from that, the government is promoting the use of drones among farmers through kisan (farmer) drones. This could be used for crop assessment, digitisation of land records, and spraying of pesticides and nutrients. The Farmers Producers Organizations are provided grants at 75 per cent for the purchase of drones for its demonstration on the fields.

As India moves towards being a digital powerhouse, drones have a role to play. In the next three to four years, it would be great if there could be one drone in each of the six lakh (600,000) villages in the country. Drones can be a data-capturing tool that collects and processes the data, which in turn may be used to narrow the digital divide.

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