These are needed soon because of the high-altitude skirmishes in Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh between Indian and Chinese troops; ‘multiple manufacturers’ competing, notes Drone Federation of India

The army has placed orders for nearly 2,000 drones, some of which will be used for taking vital supplies to forward posts and others which will undertake important surveillance and reconnaissance work.

“Multiple manufacturers are competing,” for the logistics bid, says Smit Shah, president, Drone Federation of India.

These bulk orders are needed in a hurry because of the high-altitude skirmishes in Ladakh and more recently in Arunachal Pradesh between Indian and Chinese troops.

In Ladakh, China's People's Liberation Army has moved larger numbers of troops into forward areas and built heated structures and helipads in Aksai Chin and also key conflict points like Demchok and Galwan. This has made it essential to keep a very close watch on their movements. The helipads make it easier for them to move troops to forward positions quickly.

Logistical Support

About 400 drones are being procured for logistical support and around 1,500 for different types of surveillance.

The drones being used for logistics can carry loads of between 5kg and 40kg and will mostly be used to carry different types of supplies to troops in forward posts. The distances the drones will travel could be anywhere between 5km and 20km.

“The distances involved may not be too much. But the terrain is often very difficult,” says the Drone Federation’s Shah.

Surveillance drones have different speeds and will be able tostay airborne for varying lengths of time. On order are both high-altitude drones and ones that operate at lower levels. Says a spokesman: “The drones on order are for flights of 90 minutes up-to-five-six hours.”

High-Altitude Tests

Tests are also being carried out to ensure that the drones can fly at high altitudes and can stay airborne for the time needed. In Ladakh, for instance, many key bases and forward posts are at heights of between 12,000ft and 15,000ft. The Indian Air Force's highest airbase at Daulat Bagh Oldi is at 18,000ft. Aircraft landing there keep their engines running and can only stay on the ground for about 15 minutes.

One key producer, ideaForge, makes a model, the Switch, which it says can take off from heights of almost 15,000ft and fly up to 19,600ft.

The Switch is a hybrid drone that does a vertical takeoff (V-TOL) and then flies like a plane. ideaForge is also making another high-performance drone, the Netra V4 Plus, which can do a vertical take-off at 19,600ft. It has outperformed many foreign drones which took part in trials in India.

ideaForge Production Up

ideaForge has already delivered orders to the army, air force and navy. The company is 15 years old but its production has shot up by almost 10 times in around the last 18 months.

A logistics drone could probably reach most forward posts even in very difficult mountainous terrain in about 30 minutes. By comparison, the army's mules would have to be led up tough mountain tracks and might take four-five hours – or longer – to reach the posts.

India has kept a tight control on the production and use of aerial drones for civilian use and only gave the green signal for using them widely on August 15, 2021. Some drone-manufacturers have stepped up production in a very big way since then and others have leapt into the new business.

$20 Million Deal With Army

Even before the opening up of the industry, ideaForge signed a $20 million deal with the Indian Army. The company received a repeat order in January 2022 and has another order for the infantry. Since the loosening of the drone regulations, ideaForge says business has grown by 10 times. A majority of the company’s business is now with the military which places “big ticket” orders. The company expanded slightly and also organised three shifts daily to push up production. The company also produces a large number of drones for the national mapping agency, the Survey of India.

ideaForge says it has about 70 per cent indigenisation in its drones.

The key role that drones can play was first brought into focus during the short Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict in which a huge number of drones played a decisive role. Also, a drone attack on Aramco’s refineries in Saudi Arabia highlighted how devastating they could be. More recently, the Russia-Ukraine war showed how drones are changing warfare. “All of this had a snowball effect. These unfortunate events have really increased the demand for drones,” says Kruthi Aramanamada, general manager, marketing, ideaForge.

June 2020 Encounters

India’s buying drones picked up after the encounters with China in Ladakh in June 2020.

In the last year, drones have come into sharp focus after the Russia-Ukraine war where drone attacks have become a daily feature. In the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Ukraine is using drones to attack Russian troops while Moscow is using drones to strike Ukrainian targets.

In the Russia-Ukraine war, the Iranian-built Shahed-136 drone, which is being deployed by Moscow, is the size of a small plane and can carry a small amount of explosives. It's called a loitering drone because it circles around an area till given the order to carry out a kamikaze attack. Each drone is thought to cost about $20,000 which makes it much cheaper to use than a Cruise missile.

In recent months, the Chinese have also been sending swarms of drones over islands controlled by Taiwan and there have been threats that these will be shot down.