India has taken its first step into the domain of indigenously developed active drones (unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs) for the defence forces. On November 16, the Defence Research & Development Organization (DRDO) successfully carried out the maiden flight of its indigenously developed UAV TAPAS-BH (Rustom-II)– a medium altitude long endurance (MALE) UAV. The flight was carried out at the Aeronautical Test Range (ATR), the new aero-testing facility of DRDO in Chitradurga, about 250 km from Bengaluru. But not only is an armed version of the UAV years from realization, even the present UAV needs to be technologically competent, besides being successfully validated by users, which are India’s three armed forces. TAPAS-BH is a multi-mission UAV that is intended to carry different combinations of payloads, including electronic intelligence and communication intelligence. The first pertains to gathering intelligence inputs using on board sensors, for example, to ascertain the capabilities of a target, such as the location of an enemy radar; while the second relays reports via text or online interactions using the on board systems. This UAV, with a potential endurance of 24 hours in an autonomous mode (remotely controlled from a ground-based master control room), is aimed at serving the three armed forces in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, DRDO chairman and secretary, defence (research & development), Dr S Christopher, said, describing the first flight as “major step”. However, although this machine is supposed to be “unmanned”, the maiden flight of TAPAS-BH “piloted both externally (remote-controlled) and internally (with a pilot on board at the flight controls),” director of the TAPAS-BH programme under the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), APVS Prasad, said. “It’s only the first flight, and it was more manned than unmanned. Intense efforts will have to go in over the next one year to achieve complete automation of this UAV before we can actually put it for user trials,” he said. For now, the UAV will undergo further trials for validating the design and technological parameters before going for user validation trials – which means a lot of critical feedback would be invited from the three armed forces, which will be the final users of TAPAS-BH UAV. In the coming year, nine more TAPAS-BH unmanned aircraft are planned to be produced, each one to be an improvement over the previous aircraft. “We have to make 10 aircraft for test-flying before going into certification. We will require one year of continuous efforts before we can go knocking on the doors of the users (the armed forces),” Mr. Christopher said. Prasad said TAPAS stands for “Tactical Airborne Platform for Advanced Surveillance, while the BH stands for “Beyond Horizon”. So, to achieve the level of automation and technologies needed for this UAV to be active with the forces, these will have to be validated to be able to remotely operate the TAPAS-BH when it flies beyond the horizon. In the Rs 1,500 crore programme, TAPAS-BH is the first prototype to undergo certification and qualification for its first flight.
ARMED VERSION ‘GHATAK’
To achieve capabilities like the US’s Predator drone with weapon-firing capabilities, ADA has still a long way to go. It is working on the concept of an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV), whose project name was recently changed from AURA (Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft) to ‘Ghatak’. ADA describes Ghatak as a self-defending, high-speed reconnaissance UAV with weapon-firing capabilities, and is being designed and developed by ADA along with the Defence Electronics Application Laboratory. DRDO director general (Aero), Dr. CP Ramanarayanan said Ghatak will be powered by a variant of the Kaveri engine, the project cost of which is Rs 231 crore.