SOURCE: RAJESH AHUJA / FOR MY TAKE / IDRW.ORG
In the 1990s, Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) was tasked to develop Nishant, a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) to be used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) roles on its borders with Pakistan and China. India was the first among its peers to have its own indigenous RPA/UAV program but fast forward to 2023, and India is still not where it wanted to be while even smaller countries have made rapid progress in the area.
Indian first RPA Nishant had it is the first flight in 1995 and was considered a great advancement at that time but technical issues and other changing UAV technology meant that ADE was not able to adapt fast to the changes nor was able to develop a product that met all user requirements.
While Trials after Trials continued, Nishant RPA which was ordered in limited units of just four by the Indian Army were all gone by 2015 in crashes. Nishant RPA program lasted for nearly 20 years without any results. while DRDO blamed the lobby in the Indian Army that backed acquiring imported (Israeli) UAVs, Army blamed the lack of mature products that had cleared all technical issues but the program died a slow death and India’s UAV dreams indeed had crash landed.
ADE by this time was already working on developing Rustom-I UAV, which was to be used as a template for the bigger Rustom-II medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV that completed its first flight in 2009. Rustom-I was not to be mass-produced as it had only one task to act as a technological demonstrator to mature much of the technology before Rustom-II can take off.
Rustom-II carried out its first flight in 2016 and after 7 years it has still not met the final benchmark that was required to touch an altitude of 30,000 ft and endurance of 24 hours. According to media reports, Rustom-II which has been renamed as TAPAS BH-201 still suffers from the overweight penalty that could require a switch to a more powerful engine that is still under development.
ADE plans to windup both Archer, An armed variant based on the Rustom-I UAV and Rustom-II aka TAPAS BH-201 by end of this year but the progress of both the programs has been too slow and still not reached user trials rounds which as seen in Nishant RPA program can last for several more years if not for a decade if technical and performance issues persist.
India needs to diversify its MALE and HALE UAV Programs and allow the Transfer of technology (ToT) of Rustom-I UAV and Rustom-II to private sector companies and let them come up with indigenous options. Private sector companies have done wonders after it was allowed to work on drones and loitering ammunition.
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