NEW DELHI -- India is a potentially huge customer for drones to monitor vital installations, a coastline of more than 7,500km, and over 15,100km of borders with seven countries -- including old foes China and Pakistan.
The country's land borders have mostly been drawn by hand, but run through immensely varied terrain and climatic conditions. The frontier areas have been witness to wars and numerous more minor disturbances over the years. The most recent dispute occurred on the Doklam plateau close to the borders of China, India, and their tiny neighbor Bhutan.
India's lengthy coast presents numerous security challenges, including terrorist infiltration, and the smuggling of arms, contraband, and people.
Given its multiple security concerns, India is seeking cutting-edge surveillance systems, and represents a major emerging market in the segment.
According to market research and consulting company 6Wresearch, India's video surveillance market -- worth over $950 million in 2016 -- is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of nearly 13% from 2017 to 2023. The country's unmanned aerial vehicle market, 6Wresearch said in another report, is expected to grow at 18% over the same period.
IdeaForge Technology, an Infosys-backed drone-maker, was established in 2007. It already supplies Indian security forces and hopes to benefit from the ongoing Make in India campaign intended to transform the country into a manufacturing hub. The company leads the local market in micro and mini UAVs, according to Chief Executive Ankit Mehta.
Mehta recently addressed the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) on smart border management and drone-based technologies. He described how drones stream live images and can be used for tracking. Drones can generate high-resolution topographical images for three-dimensional viewing.
Mehta said his company has already supplied over 500 systems to government agencies that have logged in excess of 100,000 flights, both day and night. "With our platforms, security forces have been able to detect insurgents digging up roads to plant improvised explosive devices, and thereby prevent disasters," he said.
Usnatek is a 2015 Indian startup coming from the opposite direction -- it provides anti-drone security solutions. "We are in complete agreement that drones are here to stay," said co-founder Sahil Dass. "At the same time, drones pose risks to safety, security, and privacy."
Although there is a ban on importing and flying drones in India, plenty are being shipped illegally into the country, some with a payload capacity exceeding 0.5 kg.
"You can simply go online and purchase a drone for under $100," said Dass, warning: "Let us not confuse cheap with lack of capability." He noted that drones can fly up to 15km on a single charge and reach speeds of 170 kph. Drones can carry numerous payloads, including weapons, chemicals, and even radioactive materials. Usnatek is marketing itself as a solution to "urgent" threats and calling for protocols for operating in border areas, with VIPs, and around critical infrastructure.
"Our solution locates a drone, classifies it based on the drone signature database being updated on a regular basis, and keeps the recording and logs for future references and prosecution," said Dass. "We are compatible with a number of detection technologies and products, including radar and ultrasonic sensors." Once a drone has been detected, the response can range from passive measures, such as evacuation, to active measures like jamming.
Usnatek's technology partner is Dedrone from Germany. The Dedrone platform allows users to configure multiple sensors, set active and passive countermeasures, and provide automatic 24/7 alerts. It is already deployed at over 200 locations globally, including military installations, prisons, and data centers.
China, Israel, and the U.S. are among the countries building advanced UAVs for export. India is to procure 10 Heron TP armed drones from Israel Aerospace Industries, according to media reports. Apart from detecting and tracking targets, these drones can take them out with air-to-ground missiles.
The Financial Express newspaper reported on Sept. 22 that the government wants to buy 100 jet-propelled Avenger Predator drones for the air force worth an estimated $8 billion in a possible deal with General Atomics in San Diego. In another recent deal with the U.S., India agreed to purchase Sea Guardian Unmanned Aerial Systems for its navy.
Another U.S. company, Martin UAV, is marketing the V Bat, a vertical takeoff and landing model that can be launched and recovered in a 20 x 20 ft area. The drone is capable of flying for up to eight hours with a 2kg payload.
Experts regard drones as technology enhancers and force multipliers, but their optimal use demands synergy with other systems. This is generally lacking at present with security forces buying multiple systems from different companies.
"These systems should be able to communicate with each other," said Sanjeev Madhok, a retired general who heads the defense business at Dynamatic Technologies. In April, Madhok's company signed a cooperation agreement with Israel's Magal Security Systems on sophisticated security solutions for critical infrastructure and integrated border management.
For maritime security, a joint study by FICCI and PricewaterhouseCoopers recently recommended contracting to private companies, and the use of hovercraft and UAVs.
"Border security is important to all countries," said Sergey Kapinos, the South Asia representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) at the FICCI event. The latest UNODC research put the global value of transnational crime at over $1 trillion a year -- on a par with some Group of 20 economies.
According to Gartner, a U.S. research company, production of drones for personal and commercial use is accelerating. Global revenue is expected to increase 34% year on year to exceed $6 billion in 2017. It is expected to surpass $11.2 billion by 2020. Global drone production will increase by almost 40% this year compared to 2016.