‘Atmanirbhar’ Start-Ups to Boost India’s Swarm Drone Arsenal, IAF to Issue RFP

Indian Army

New Delhi: In modern warfare, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are becoming a critical component. The Indian Air Force is set to issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) to five domestic start-ups for swarm drones, which are capable of both punitive action and load-carrying capabilities, media reports said.

According to sources, the RFP will be issued for two sets of swarm drones, that will cost about Rs 100 crore in total, and there will be a lot of “handholding”. This means the selected firm or firms will get assistance from select Base Repair Depots, which have the technical expertise and carry out major repair and overhaul of aircraft and other equipment of the IAF. They will also get armament procured from the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).

The five companies that will be in the fray — NewSpace Research and Technologies, Veda Defence Systems Pvt Ltd, Raphe mPhibr Pvt Ltd, Dhaksha Unmanned Systems Pvt Ltd and Flaire Unmanned Systems Pvt Ltd — were also the top participants of the IAF’s Mehar Baba Swarm Drone Competition, which began in 2018.

Named after the legendary Air Commodore Mehar Singh, affectionately called ‘Baba’ Mehar Singh by his associates and admirers in the IAF, participants competed to build a swarm of 50 drones in the competition that lasted two years. Two of the top five participants also recently won contracts from the Army for swarm drones.

Sources said the firms will be given all the help possible from the IAF so that more complex systems can be developed and the swarm drone capability can be taken to much higher levels than what it is right now.

“Swarm drones work in numerical strength. The more there are, the better it is. The big swarms can itself be divided into multiple smaller swarms, each equipped for a specific target. The world of possibilities with the drones is something that one is still understanding,” a source said.

Explaining the origin of swarm drones in India, sources said that when the IAF began the Mehar Baba Swarm Drone Competition in 2018, they had received 154 applicants from across the country. Of these, 54 were selected in the first round and 20 were selected in the second round.

Sources said that the 20 who were selected were asked to demonstrate 10 drones with 10-km range and 10 medical drops in Pokharan, and were reimbursed Rs 25 lakh each by the IAF. The top five from them were given a task of demonstrating a 50-km range with 20 drones and 20 medical or emergency aid drops in GPS-denied, rogue drone and anti-drone jamming environment. All top five firms of the competition were start-ups and had beaten top defence companies.

The IAF eventually awarded Rs 2.5 crore in the final round to each competitor, sources said, adding that the whole process lasted two years. They noted that given the success of the competition, a plan was made for possible joint procurement. However, the plan did not go ahead since the requirements for each service was different.

In December 2020, the IAF had put out pictures of its swarm drone capability, noting that the process of their procurement was on.