India's Vihang Netra UAV takes to the skies

The oft-used Army adages ‘unity is strength’ and ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ has literally come true for a group of small entrepreneurs in Pune.

Members of the DEMA Manufacturers’ Association, which began first as an association of small electronics manufacturing units catering to the defence electronics sector, decided to form a consortium to take on orders from the defence sector.

And they did the unimaginable. As a 50-member consortium, instead of small isolated units, they built an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) called Vihang Netra for the Armed Forces. They pooled their resources in domains, going all the way from aerospace, avionics, navigation, sensors, radars, fuses, smart weapons, radio networks, thermal imaging, image processing, safety equipment, ground support equipment for missiles and quality assurance equipment.

“The UAV has been accepted by the Indian Army since units have flown at an altitude of 1,000 feet above mean sea level (MSL), requiring smaller crew and ground support operations against imported variety. So, to explore the potential of this indigenous development, DEMA has formed a strategic partnership through an MoU with Larsen & Toubro.

Under the MoU, Larsen & Toubro and DEMA members will work together to upgrade and supply the UAVs to end-users,” says Wavelet group head and DEMA member Vishwas Udpikar.

Explaining the objectives of the consortium, he says that these include “removing the fear of the unknown from the minds of the small industrial entrepreneurs over working for defence and providing all the necessary support for successful work towards defence.”

The consortium model proposes to provide a single umbrella for the inter-disciplinary and wide variety of requirements of defence. This has become possible due to a wide spectrum of domains covered by its members, says Kasco Industries partner and DEMA Manufacturers Association president DS Kamlapurkar.

Referring to the development of the completely indigenously built UAV, members explained that it began under the guidance of former president Abdul Kalam, when he was scientific adviser to the defence minister and the director, Snow and Avalanche Studies Establishment.

“We had to indigenise key technologies like the air-frame, controls, navigation, imaging, communication, flight consoles, ground equipment and delivery of units to DRDO. These units have now collectively flown over 400 sorties and more than 100 of these have been beyond the visual range of control,” says Udpikar.

Following up on the success both, of the consortium approach and the UAV, DEMA is now looking at setting up a cluster of its own, targeted at the defence sector. The cluster will address the specific needs of defence-related development and supply.

Such a cluster is expected to bring several centres of excellence in all the diverse areas at one location, giving an impetus to this vital area of national growth. Udpikar is confident of the cluster actually happening since DEMA has established methods of the consortium and working together over a long period.

The defence cluster will additionally provide test, validation and certification facilities for defence-related production. Dr Natarajan, scientific adviser to the defence minister, has given a favourable response to this idea and DEMA has also asked the DRDO to participate in it by providing land near Pune.

Despite the requirements of the defence sector being worth hundreds of crores of rupees, most equipment is imported and domestic research and development in this sector is negligible. While this is attributable partly to a lack of a long-term roadmap for development by the armed forces, it ensures that the country remains dependent on expensive imports of sensitive equipment.

“Our effort to set up a defence-related R&D sector is to overcome the lack of research in such a critical area,” says Kamlapurkar.

Member units of the consortium have begun using the reliability centre at the auto cluster promoted by the central government and the Mahratta Chamber of Commerce Industries and Agriculture.

DEMA was formed in 1989 under the guidance of late admiral Mudholkar by a few industrial units then pursuing defence-related products in the Pune region. The organisation now covers most defence-related organisations, the DRDO, the three Services, defence production units, PSUs in defence (HAL, BEL etc.) and the DGST and DGQA. The collective turnover of these units is over Rs 200 crore.