A good example of the country's emerging strength in the domestic defence front currently unravels at its largest-ever defence exhibition–DefExpo 2022 in Gandhinagar. One of the key highlights being, that in a major development, India's leading drone startup, Garuda Aerospace has teamed up with global high-end technology company, Elbit Systems, to provide Skylark 3 UAS drones for commercial as well as government agencies. The advanced sensors in such drones will be used at the intersection of development, technology and homegrown defence solutions.
Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), popularly referred to as drones, have limitless potential to make human lives easier. Paradoxically, these machines also have the potential to inflict unending misery on humanity. The very first drone strike took place on 7 October 2001, when the USA fired a Hellfire missile attack from the Predator UAV.
At the turn of the century, the USA was the only country in possession of armed drones. Today, the number has surged to over 40 countries and is growing at a rapid pace. More importantly, non-state actors can also have access to armed drones, and the numbers can be exponentially higher. India is one of them.
Commercial Drones Are Gamechangers In Conflict Zones
Let's take a look at the table below that provides a summary of some the major drone strikes or threats over the past five years.
The innovative use of commercial drones in the ongoing conflict by Ukrainians, both for surveillance and kinetic applications, has serious implications. It has been demonstrated that the 'do-it-yourself' effort required to arm off-the-shelf drones with small explosives attached like a hand grenade or to transform them into rudimentary kamikazes does not demand a high level of knowledge or skill.
Although, the highly sophisticated air defence systems costing a few hundred million dollars employed by the Russians are not specifically designed for slow-moving small drones, the blanket air defence cover it provides could stop these commercial drones. The Russians could contain the damage, primarily because of battlefield conditions and they had capable systems deployed.
Drone landings on the Queen Elizabeth warship, flight disruptions at UK's Gatwick airport, assassination attempts on the Venezuelan president, or the Houthi attacks in the Middle East, on the other hand, are not in a classical war scenario, and thus, such use of drones presents itself as a persistent threat. In order to counter it, there is an urgent requirement for counter drone systems or counter UAS (CUAS) and that too, in large numbers.
How Counter Drone Systems Can Fly High
The counter drone system workflow and solutions include detect, track, identify, react, and interdict. Detecting the small, slow-moving drones with a low radar cross section, low acoustic and low visual signatures is the biggest challenge. Each sensor has its limitations to detect these drones, and hence, the development of CUAS with integrated multiple sensors is the preferred option.
With the progress in technology, identification and tracking have become relatively simpler. However, minimising false positives and negatives is a challenge to facilitate the right reaction. Interdiction can be accomplished through both kinetic and non-kinetic means. The kinetic means of interdiction are lasers, projectiles, and nets. RF/GNSS jamming and/or spoofing are non-kinetic methodologies.
How India’s Drone Revolution Benefits Civil Society
The liberalised UAS regulation introduced by the government has been a shot in the arm for the Indian UAS or Drone ecosystem. The Indian government’s bold move to impose an import embargo on Chinese drones for civilian use further boosted the prospects for the Indian industry. More players are entering the arena, and more fields are being explored.
Precision agriculture, logistics, inspection and maintenance in the energy and real estate sectors, mapping, surveying, and healthcare are some of the fields that have seen a surge in interest. Logistic and healthcare drones being developed have payload carrying capabilities ranging up to 100 kg.
Agriculture drones that spray pesticides can also carry significant weight. In a sector with an anticipated 15-20 % CAGR, the euphoria and enthusiasm are on expected lines. But there are lurking dangers on the horizon and that cannot be ignored.
Do Drones Have Enough Surveillance Mechanism in Place?
The Digital Sky platform was launched to facilitate online registration of drones, pilots, service providers, and No Permission, No Take-off(NPNT). The airspace has been divided into three zones: Red Zone (no-fly zone), Yellow Zone (controlled zone), and Green Zone (automatic permission). The platform provides a dashboard for regulators and approvers to monitor flight operations as well as track and analyse flight data. The Digital Sky could be expanded in the future to perform autonomous flights, automated RPAS traffic control, air taxis, air ambulances, and other services.
Every aircraft flying in Indian skies takes off with permission and is constantly tracked by radar. Can that be said with certainty about drones? According to the government, India's overall UAS policy is based on trust, self-certification, and non-intrusive monitoring. However, it leaves ample space for anyone who would want to willingly breach the trust to exploit the loopholes.
Why a Drone Threat Maybe Imminent for India
For more than three decades, India has been fighting a proxy war with a hostile neighbour who thrives on exporting terrorism. Of late, unmanned systems technology has become a convenient tool to abet terrorism. According to media reports, the BSF reported 110 incidents of drone intrusions, with only six being shot down.
In the absence of a credible CUAS, the number of hostile drones that might have sneaked in would remain a mystery. In June last year, two explosives-laden drones crashed into the air force base at Jammu, perhaps the first time that suspected Pakistan-based terrorists have used drones in an attack. Although the drones did not cause serious damage, they did highlight the vulnerability of high-security installations.
These small flying machines has the potential to be used by the terrorists like improvised explosive devices. If Ukrainians can arm the commercial drones, so can the terrorists. The freedom to manoeuvre in the third dimension coupled with precise navigation systems makes the drones a potent and lingering threat.
India has a long coastline which can be exploited by terror elements. As demonstrated by the Houthi rebels, the rudimentary explosive-laden drones can travel a long distance. The employment of such drones by terrorists can potentially result in another 26/11 type of terror attack, and that too without physical presence. The possibility of such an attack may be remote. But can a repeat of 26/11 by arm-chair terrorists using drones be completely ruled out?
How Drone Abuse Maybe Commonplace
A rogue drone disrupted a football match at Lumen Field in Seattle, USA, on 25 September 2022. These intrusive drones defied the bans at the football games. The US National Football League reported 1,400 airspace violations by drones last season. Despite a ban on the use of drones near major sporting events, violations occurred on multiple occasions. Flying over prohibited areas is not difficult for anyone who disregards the law. Hence, the mere presence of security guards at the entrance and within the stadium is insufficient to counter the emerging threat from hostile airborne unmanned aircraft. Political rallies, festivals, sporting events, and any other place with a large crowd are potential targets for inimical elements.
Drone enthusiasts have recently been seen using these flying machines to deliver newspapers, gifts, carry the national flag, and perform other seemingly innocuous tasks. However, such use also exposes the prospects of abuse. The load-carrying drones are of particular concern. Drones used for pesticide spraying in agriculture, parcel/cargo/food delivery drones, or medicine delivery drones are all potential threats because these drones can carry explosives as well. The ease of access and low cost of technology provide ample opportunity for abuse.
Commercial CUAS Are the Need of the Hour
Days after the suspected drone attack hit an oil facility and an airport in the country’s capital, the UAE banned all flying operations of private drones and light sport aircraft in the Gulf country for a month. It remains to be seen how the government will react if a hostile drone-inflicted untoward incident causes significant damage in India. A ban on private drones could have disastrous consequences for India's fledgling but promising drone industry.
CUAS technology is still in a nascent stage, with only a handful of countries, like Israel, having fully developed CUAS. These systems use multiple sensors integrated with neutralising/interdicting mechanisms and are primarily designed and developed for application against a conventional adversary. Consequently, such CUAS are expected to counter sophisticated and technologically advanced military-class UAS. Hence, military-grade CUAS are prohibitively expensive for large-scale deployment.
On the other hand, improvised commercial drones may not require such a sophisticated CUAS. While drones are available off the shelf, the same is not the case with counter drone systems. Thus, there is an urgent requirement to develop commercial-grade CUAS that may not be perfect, but affordable.
(Brigadier P S Ramesh (Retd), amongst the pioneers of UAS in India, has spent the last 20 years developing a niche specialisation in the technology. He is currently pursuing his PhD on UAS)