With events like Aero India 2023, many start-ups get a moment in the sun and come under the radar of key decision-makers. It will be interesting to see if we have more such events in the coming years to give start-ups a much-needed platform to showcase their trailblazing innovations

It is undeniable that the multirole F-35A Lightning-II and F-35A Joint Strike Fighter flying aerobatic manoeuvres in the bright and sunny Bangalore skies during flypasts stole the Aero India 2023 Air Show last week. And why not, considering that the US Airforce was fielding its F-35 stealth fighters for the very first time on Indian soil. But amid the loud rumble of aircraft engines at the Yelahanka Air Base, there were many Aerospace and Defence start-ups at the flagship Government of India event, demonstrating their phenomenal innovations.

Among these trailblazing startups at the 14th edition of the international airshow was Pixxel, a space technology company working towards creating the world's highest resolution hyperspectral imaging satellite-imaging constellation. The company’s satellites can capture images at hundreds of wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum and reveal key data about the health of our planet that is invisible to other satellites.

Sky, Not The Limit

Part of the India Pavilion and Karnataka Pavilion at Aero India, Pixxel showcased a model of its hyperspectral satellite, 'Anand', which was launched aboard a PSLV rocket on 26 November 2022. Weighing approximately 15 kilograms, the satellite can see Earth in great detail due to its capability of being able to cover over 150 wavelengths. The imagery from Pixxel’s satellite can be used to detect pest infestation, map forest fires, identify soil stress and oil slicks amongst other things.

Abhishek Krishnan, Chief of Staff, Pixxel said, “We saw very strong footfalls across both pavilions with representation at the highest levels across different quarters. More importantly, we are working to realise new partnerships which originated from Aero India 2023.”

But it wasn’t just all demos for the space technology startup. The company signed an MoU with the Government of Karnataka for an infrastructure investment toward a satellite manufacturing, assembly and integration facility.

While the year 2021 was a watershed year for space technology start-ups, with investments reaching USD 68 million, a year-on-year (YoY) increase of 196 per cent. There were a total of 47 new spacetech start-ups established in India in 2021, according to an EY report.

In 2022, spacetech start-ups went one step further. They outdid themselves through several breakthroughs, including Skyroot Aerospace executing India’s first private suborbital rocket launch, Pixxel launching the country’s first private commercial satellite with Shakuntala and Agnikul Cosmos inaugurating India’s first private space vehicle launchpad at Sriharikota. All three start-ups had set up stalls at Aero India 2023, showcasing their innovations.

“Aero India 2023 was a much-needed follow-up to the Def Expo '22 in Gandhinagar. The event was a great opportunity to witness India's prowess in defence manufacturing. For Pixxel, it gave us an opportunity to present our technological capabilities to the Prime Minister and other critical domestic and international stakeholders who would be interested in our solutions,” said Krishnan.

Zooming On Jet Packs

Jet packs have been featured in sci-fi movies and novels for ages now but somehow the technology still hasn’t peaked yet. But it is getting closer to reality in 2023 than one might know.

Defence startup Absolute Composites Private Limited showcased its indigenously developed personal air mobility vehicle/jet suit at Aero India 2023. Lightweight and compact in design, the suit can be used to traverse difficult terrain which presents numerous use cases for the Indian armed forces.

In fact, the innovation from Absolute Composites even received an Indian Army request for proposals (RFP) for 48 jet suits.

According to media reports, the Absolute Composites jet suit weighs 140 kilogram and can carry a pilot who weighs up to 80 kilogram. The vehicle can move at a maximum speed of 80 kmph and is powered by seven engines that deliver up to 1200 hp.

Agreements & MoU-Galore

In total, reportedly over 200 deals were signed worth Rs 80,000 crore at Aero India 2023 which saw participation from 800 defence companies, including MSMEs and start-ups. An important announcement on the sidelines of the “Bandhan” event held at Aero India was that of Defence PSU Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL), which has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), DRDO, for the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) program.

The MoU aims at leveraging the complementary strengths and capabilities of BEL and ADA, wherein both parties will cooperate for the design, development, qualification, production and supply of Internal Weapon Bay Computer and other LRUs for AMCA and provide lifetime product support to the Indian Air Force.

On the startup front, the innovation intermediary and key business incubator T-Hub announced a strategic partnership with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), an Indian aerospace company. This partnership was aimed to support startups in the Aerospace sector and both organisations formalised their alliance by signing an MoU for a two-year term.

This collaboration aims to support startups in the aerospace and defence composite market, which is predicted to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.1 percent from 2021 to 2027, according to Statista. The partnership is expected to offer industry expertise, resources, and access to markets, providing startups with the necessary tools to develop and scale their technologies.

Under the partnership, HAL will assist startups in building Proof of Concepts (PoC), giving them the opportunity to gain valuable industry expertise and support to bring their ideas to fruition. Meanwhile, T-Hub will provide access to a diverse network of startups with expertise in niche technological areas, as well as mentorship, training, and support services to help startups succeed.

On this strategic partnership, Srinivas Rao Mahankali, CEO, T-Hub said, “By leveraging HAL's expertise and T-Hub's resources, start-ups can gain valuable support and guidance to bring their ideas to market. This can include access to specialised facilities and equipment, guidance on industry best practices, and opportunities for collaboration and co-innovation.”

The partnership is expected to help the rising number of startups in the Aerospace and Defence sector in India.

“The Aero India 2023 was an unparalleled platform for global leaders to witness and contribute to India's burgeoning Defence capabilities. The consistent presence of the Prime Minister, Defence Minister and Chief Minister across events was a signal of the seriousness with which India is thinking about its Defence Sector. And more importantly, it provided an opportunity for global business and government leaders to meet and announce new investments and partnerships which is critical to propel this ecosystem forward,” said Pixxel’s Abhishek Krishnan.

Last year, while launching the C-295 transport aircraft manufacturing facility in Vadodara, PM Narendra Modi said that the Aerospace and Defence sectors will be two important pillars for making India 'Atmanirbhar'. “By 2025, our defence manufacturing scale would cross USD25 billion. Defence corridors being established in Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu would power this scale,” he had said.

But to achieve such national goals, it will be crucial for the start-ups in Aerospace and Defence sectors to be in the spotlight, leading the curve of innovation in India.

“India's start-up ecosystem is growing at an unparalleled pace and the attendance of senior decision makers across businesses and governments only adds to that growth in the form of high-stakes contracts and partnership opportunities. Pixxel is extremely bullish about such events organised by the government and will continue attending the same in the future,” Krishnan said.

With events like Aero India 2023, many start-ups get a moment in the sun and come under the radar of key decision-makers. It will be interesting to see if we have more such events in the coming years to give start-ups a much-needed platform to showcase their trailblazing innovations, which can in turn and in the long run, give India’s Aerospace and Defence an avenue for sustained growth.