Market for mini-UAVs set for Big Boom

BENGALURU: Everyone wants an eye in the sky, relaying live videos in clandestine avatars. Blurring the military-civilian divide, the market for mini unmanned aerial vehicles (mini-UAVs) is on the verge of an explosive boom.

The just-concluded Aero-India 2017 had enough small drones on display to indicate the impending trend. But pushed by firms — big and small, domestic and foreign — the mini UAVs had a distinct feature — all were fixed-wing, agile and designed for stealth. Unlike the quadcopters sold commercially, the fixed wing could take off silently, rise up to altitudes of one km and quietly relay live feeds of enemy territory.

The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) had its Indian Eagle on display. This mini-UAV has already been demonstrated to the armed forces and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).

But the technology could reach production stage only if a manufacturer, private or government, had orders in hundreds, a DRDO official told DH. DRDO’s Black Kite, Sly Bird, Pushpak and Golden Hawk were all waiting to be picked up. The simplicity of use is what sets apart the mini-UAVs. A crew of not more than two persons can carry the entire equipment on a backpack and hand-launch the UAV within 10-15 minutes. But heavy winds and bad weather conditions could hamper its operations. Betting big on its own mini UAV, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has completed extensive trials and demonstrated it to the Railways, Forest department and the police. The 8-kg UAV can operate in day/night conditions with infra red cameras and fly non-stop for 90 minutes.

Hand-launched, the device is capable of belly-landing. However, unlike the quad-copters, it cannot take off vertically and hover around a particular area. HAL, said an official, is also working on a rotary-wing based UAV in partnership with the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur.

Competing with DRDO and HAL, the Israelis had their own third generation mini-UAVs, the Bird Eye 400 and 650 on display. The 400 version, besides providing real-time day/night imagery data for urban operation, could offer “over the hill” intelligence.

Typically, the mini-UAVs have their missions defined: reconnaissance, as they can operate under the glare of radars, for counter-terrorism, law enforcement, patrol and convoy escort. Civilian use could spike if the police start using them for traffic and disaster monitoring, a DRDO engineer said.

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