The Meher Baba Swarm Drone Competition has been an unprecedented success

New Delhi: In Christopher Nolan’s dystopic sci-fi thriller Interstellar, the protagonist downs an Indian Air Force drone flying above his farm in Colorado and scavenges solar cells from it. An IAF drone soaring over the US great plains might have sounded like an unusual nod when the film was released in 2014. India has been a drone laggard — Chinese drones have a stranglehold on the commercial market, nearly all its military drones are of Israeli origin even as the DRDO struggles to deliver indigenous options. Recent government interventions have done much to boost indigenous drone manufacture. But nowhere is this effort as pronounced as it is with the IAF bootstrapping a group of drone entrepreneurs to create swarm drones. IAF’s Meher Baba Swarm Drone Competition has created an entire indigenous ecosystem of drone swarms in the country. In an exclusive interview with News9 Plus, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa (Retd), in whose tenure the competition was launched, says the idea is to create an indigenous system that overwhelms enemies. Edited excerpts:

Question: It was during your tenure that Mehar Baba Swarm Drone Competition came into being and a whole ecosystem emerged from it. So, how exactly does the competition work?

In 2018, when we announced the competition, the purpose was to develop an ecosystem within the country so that we can utilise swarm drones. We had started it as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Of course, it was also the purpose but once we have the algorithm and we have the system going, we will also be weaponising it. So the purpose was to have an indigenous system which could overwhelm enemies, air defences and carry out a strike on something which is of very high value. The purpose was in this country to kick start this environment, I think for which it has been quite successful.

Question: How did the idea crop up for this kind of a competition that has created a whole ecosystem for drone swarms?

Answer: The idea germinated from a youngster, Wing Commander Aditya Kiran. He was in the ‘Air War Strategy Cell’ which is actually the think tank of the air force. He moved the whole thing. The idea was to have a competition and in that competition we select the person (start-up), give the person more money to develop the system and then assure a contract to the winners. Then only a private company will put in money. Why else will people put money into the system and I think that has been a resounding success. Now, the people who competed and the five finalists who won, all of them have got very big orders.

Question: How much was the investment?

Answer : Hardly Rs 16 crore is what we had invested initially and now more than Rs 800 crore of orders have been issued from the government and military distribution.

Question: Did you expect a success of this scale?

Answer : No, I never expected it to take off in such a manner. I think partly also it is because of the war that is going on in Ukraine and the success of drones in that.

There have been efforts from the government as well but I think this particular competition has generated enough business and it is all to indigenous private sector companies in India. We also look into the future, then we do our force structure planning. So, we realised that this capability is required and that’s why we kickstarted the ‘Mehar Baba competition’. Like I told you, the Indian Air force has been operating killer drones for the last over 20 years, but they were not in the swarm.

Question: How did you find the traction to rope in private sector players?

See, after all the manufacturers are all in the private sector. They will put their money only if they know they are successful, their developmental costs will be covered. Here, we paid them after we selected the winners. We also pay their developmental costs followed by orders which have come across to all the winners. 10 lakhs was the prize and 10 crore was the developmental cost.

Question: What is the strategic and economic importance of such a contest?

Strategic it is because it has established India as a player in this game and that depends on the government, how much government policy permits. I’m sure they’ll be able to find an export market for it because the demand is there from all over the globe. So we are also a player. Earlier there were only three or four players in this. The Chinese were there big time. And economically for us it is a low cost indigenous alternative. Compared to China, we have started late, but we have started and we are going to get equipment that meets that requirement.