HAL scouts partner for new UAV family

By SP's Special Correspondent

October 28, 2013: With its order books full across manned platforms, including fighters and helicopters, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) has decided to take the big plunge into unmanned air systems, and wants to do it quickly in order to be ready to compete for several ongoing and anticipated tenders from Indian and foreign security agencies. For starters, HAL has invited interest from global and Indian majors in a holistic joint venture: joint development, manufacturing and marketing of a family of UAVs: a fixed-wing medium altitude long-range (MALE) UAV, fixed-wing short-range tactical UAV and a mini UAV for use at the infantry platoon level. Indications are that HAL is not purely looking for ab-initio development models, but possible deep modifications of existing platforms as well.

The company has formulated a detailed process to identify a partner and then thrash out a business model. Interestingly, HAL has asked interested vendors to suggest methods and business plans going forward on the programme. HAL is hoping to sign a deal with a partner this financial year with everything in place to begin development work.

"HAL is expanding its reach to cover new product lines. As the UAS business in India and other countries is expanding, there is a need for collaboration to face the competitive scenario," HAL has said in its invitation to prospective vendors. The company recently held a series of meetings where chairman R.K. Tyagi stressed on the need for a sharp diversification in the company's product portfolio. Companies that have already sat up to take notice of HAL's interest in joint venture activity include BAE Systems, IAI, Dassault Aviation, Northrop-Grumman, EADS and others.

HAL has made detailed technical stipulations for the family of UAVs it is seeking to partner in. The medium altitude long range UAV will be a multirole platform for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance, data relay and communications, scientific and weather forecasting, in addition to disaster management and relief coordination. The MALE UAV will be in the two tonne class, 15 metres long and with a wingspan of 30 metres, capable of deploying a payload of 500 kg, 50 hours endurance and a top speed of 500 km/h. HAL has listed the mission profiles for the short range tactical UAV as battlefield target acquisition, battlefield damage assessment, surveillance and reconnaissance and correction of artillery fire, while the smallest of the three, the mini UAV, will presumably be developed for infantry level operations by regular troops, paramiliary and special forces, including in anti-Naxal operations.

A senior MoD official confirmed HAL's plans, and added, "HAL had identified a yawning gap in the unmanned space. This was a space that is principally being addressed by DRDO and certain other agencies, as also the private sector in a big way. Keeping with its core competencies in aerospace applications, HAL has decided that this is the next big product thrust area. The MoD has approved the move, but with conditions that HAL cannot reinvent the wheel. It is for this reason that it is looking for a suitable technology-cum-business partner either in India or abroad. If the partner is foreign, all development work and manufacture will need to be within India."

The only unmanned vehicle that HAL currently builds is the Lakshya targetting drone, and is supplying the Chetak helicopter platform as its share in the IAI-HAL naval rotory UAV (NRUAV) programme, that has lately run into serious delays. With several current and ongoing requirements for UAVs being articulated not just by the armed forces, but also the Home Ministry-administered paramilitary forces, state police services, intelligence agencies and private security agencies, there is a potentially enormous list of contracts that HAL finds itself excluded from by virtue of not being in the UAV space.

"Manned aircraft platforms will remain HAL's overarching focus for the foreseeable future, but the importance of unmanned systems cannot be stressed enough. It is crucial that there is a mindset shift towards understanding what unmanned systems can achieve, and there must be a paradigm shift in the way HAL approaches its development processes for the future," HAL's Chairman R.K. Tyagi is quoted to have told his employees earlier this year at a meeting called specifically on the new thrust areas being drawn up by the company.