Defence Start-ups: Helping Indian Military With Tech on Borders
India led the dot-com boom with its BPO and outsource industry but in creating cutting edge technology, the country took the first steps a bit too late. Nevertheless, the new stream of ‘defence-startups’ are leading the tech front by assisting Indian armed forces in modern war-fare.
Picture this: A small, lightweight thermal imaging device called ‘Arjun’, that lets a soldier see around corners and shoot targets without entering the line of fire or ‘Cobra’ – a dual sensor thermal weapon – that comes with an inbuilt wireless video interface enabling real time video output to the commander.
Tonbo Imaging is literally the ‘poster-boy’ of the growth story of cutting edge technology in India. Inspired by the unique imaging capability of a dragon fly's eye, Tonbo (Japanese name for the Dragon Fly) specialises in products like advanced night-vision cameras, fire control systems, advanced weaponry through “nature-inspired technology.”
When we started Tonbo, we wanted to make imaging systems that would emulate nature’s way of image processing. Like the dragon fly’s eye, our technology enables the use of many apertures and so instead of needing more light, we end up having more images. This allows us to make lighter and better imaging devices at a much lower costs than other options.
Tonbo's expertise and products are being used by CRPF, DRDO, NSG, Northern command of the Army after Uri attack, even NASA, US Navy SEALs and the US Army.
With an employee strength of 100, which includes more than 85 top-notch engineers and tech experts Tonbo, claims to have an order book of $50 million executable in next 18 months. The company is now looking to raise its next round of funding of around $30 million-50 million.
CM Environs (CME), another start-up from Bengaluru, found a business solution to the problem of testing military equipment.
CME simulates all types of conditions and climate for military-grade testing since
military equipment can’t always be tested on fields. With CME, the failures if any, occur before the artillery reaches the front. The company has provided environmental test systems for Agni, India's ballistic missiles programme.
In India, we don’t have advance testing technologies to detect failures at product development stage resulting in large number of product failures within two to three years of product launch. The fact that 2/3rd of such failures are due to environmental and mechanical factors, which in fact could be easily avoided if it is tested in the right way using the right equipment.Mr. Prajwal Crasta, CEO of CME
VizExpert, a Gurgaon-based start-up on the other hand, uses 3D visualisation to map out unknown terrains for the Border Security Force. The idea is to use a 3D model equipped with various interaction devices, software, and terrain data to plan the operation on a real-time basis.
Defence is a complex business and India has always been dependent on PSUs and government owned defence labs to build futuristic technology. With no incentives to build and commercialise core technology, these units have struggled to remain ahead of the time.
The need for India to focus on Indigenisation and grow its own design, IPR, know-how and innovate in defence sector has long been felt. A world driven by tech creates a gold mine of opportunities for start-ups that can cater to defence and security needs.
In 2014, a group of 24 students from a private engineering college in Hyderabad were swept away in a flash flood. As NDRF teams and underwater cameras proved ineffective in tracing the missing students, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) were deployed to find the missing students.
Ankit Mehta, co-founder and CEO of the Navi Mumbai-based firm, whose drones were used in rescue and search operations in the Beas River tragedy, says:
From night vision cameras to simulators that can test military equipment, even drones that are ‘controversially’ being used for surveillance and in the times of disaster, the potential and opportunities for defence electronics or ‘Deftronics’ is huge. What lacks though is funding and investment.
In Silicon Valley, VC funds were instrumental in the growth of innovation as they made risky investments in cutting edge and niche technologies. The start-up story in India has a different beginning.
When all these Silicon Valley VCs came to India, they adopted a more ‘returns oriented’ approach to funding. They would invest in e-commerce ventures as it was (and is) the flavour of the day, or a mobile internet company, but they wouldn’t even think of investing in, say, a sensors business.
While investments and funding remain a challenge, a recent move by the Ministry of Defence can be a game-changer.
Defence budget for 2016-17 is nearly Rs 2244.56 billion and the government has created a new category named, Indigenously Designed Developed and Manufactured (IDDM) items to boost the participation of domestic companies in defence manufacturing.
‘Defence start-ups’ are here to stay and they are no longer limited to military assistance and securing the borders. Driven by hi-end technology they will soon impact our day today lives.