Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in Indian Army

Increasingly capable UAVs, both in the combat and reconnaissance roles, are carving their own niche

Issue: 2 / 2018 By Lt General V.K. Kapoor (Retd)Photo(s): By IAI, USAF
(Left) IAI’s Heron UAV; (right) General Atomics’ MQ-9 Reaper.

The synergy derived from the combination of technology with operational art is taking warfare to new realms which were never anticipated. While there are many challenges, but there are also unbounded opportunities. Some are evolutionary-and some are truly revolutionary. For example in the aerospace realm even as fifth-generation aircraft like the F/A-22, the F-35, and the Sukhoi PAK-FA, become operational, increasingly capable unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are carving out their own niche. This brief review examines UAV functions, their expanding missions and the capabilities of some of the current UAVs in use in various militaries.


UAVs perform a wide variety of functions. The majority of these functions pertain to reconnaissance and are some form of remote sensing.

Remote Sensing

Remote sensing functions include electromagnetic spectrum sensors, biological sensors, and chemical sensors. Electromagnetic sensors typically include visual spectrum, infrared, or near infrared cameras as well as radar systems. Other electromagnetic wave detectors such as microwave and ultraviolet spectrum sensors may also be used, but are uncommon. Biological sensors are sensors capable of detecting the airborne presence of various microorganisms and other biological factors. Chemical sensors use laser spectroscopy to analyze the concentrations of each element in the air.

Counter – IEDs

Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL ), UAVs operated in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown their usefulness in counter improvised explosive device (C-IEDs) tasks. Vertical take off and landing UAVs are especially versatile in locating IEDs with the air vehicle capable of hovering at a distance to find and locate IEDs.


UAVs additionally offer an alternative to manned strike aircraft providing both intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR ) capability as well as suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) and deep penetration capability where there is high threat from enemy air defences.

Land Border Surveillance

In the domain of land border surveillance, there is a wide spectrum of possible technical means that can be employed to provide effective surveillance including: daylight and infrared cameras, ground radars, fixed ground sensors, mobile systems, manned aircraft and satellites. However, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) could also play an important role in further enhancing border surveillance in the future, though they face a number of technical and other challenges.

Exploration Missions

UAVs can be used to perform geophysical surveys, in particular geomagnetic surveys where the processed measurements of the differential Earth’s magnetic field strength are used to calculate the nature of the underlying magnetic rock structure. A knowledge of the underlying rock structure helps trained geophysicists to predict the location of mineral deposits. The production side of oil and gas exploration and production entails the monitoring of the integrity of oil and gas pipelines and related installations. Monitoring activity could be performed using digital cameras mounted on one, or more, UAVs.


UAVs can transport goods using various means based on the configuration of the UAV itself. Most payloads are stored in an internal payload bay somewhere in the airframe. For many helicopter configurations, external payloads can be tethered to the bottom of the airframe. With fixed wing UAVs, payloads can also be attached to the airframe, but aerodynamics of the aircraft with the payload must be assessed.

UAS’ roles have expanded to areas including electronic attack, drone strikes, suppression or destruction of enemy air defense, network node or communications relay, combat search and rescue, and derivations of these themes

Scientific Research

Unmanned aircraft are also used for scientific research in areas which may be too dangerous for piloted craft. Examples are of use during Hurricanes or in extreme cold and severe climates.

Armed Attacks

UAVs armed with missiles are now used as platforms for hitting ground targets in sensitive areas. Armed UAVs are being used by the US military for hitting militants and terrorist leaders. The advantage of using an unmanned vehicle, rather than a manned aircraft in such cases, is to avoid a diplomatic embarrassment should the aircraft be shot down and the pilots captured. Use of MQ-1 Predator UAVs armed with Hellfire missiles in Afghanistan and in tribal areas of Pakistan and in Yemen by the US, are now well known. Similarly Israel is using UAVs armed with missiles in Palestine. Many cases of targeting civilians have also been reported by the media proving that targeting without proper verification can lead to collateral damage.

Search and Rescue

UAVs play a very significant role in search and rescue and this is likely to increase in the future. This was demonstrated by the successful use of UAVs during the 2008 hurricanes that struck Louisiana and Texas. It is believed that Predators, operating between 18,000–29,000 feet above sea level, have performed search and rescue and damage assessment. The Predator’s synthetic aperture radar (SAR) is a sophisticated allweather sensor capable of providing photographic- like images through clouds, rain or fog, and in daytime or nighttime conditions; all in real-time.

Design and Development

UAV design and production is a global activity, with manufacturers all across the world. The United States and Israel were initial pioneers in this technology, and US manufacturers had a market share of over 60 per cent in 2006. The share is due to increase by 5-10 per cent through 2016. Northrop Grumman and General Atomics are the dominant manufacturers in this industry, on the strength of the Global Hawk and Predator/Mariner systems. Israeli and European manufacturers form a second tier due to lower indigenous investments, and the governments of those nations have initiatives to acquire US systems due to higher levels of capability. European market share represented just 4 per cent of global revenue in 2006.

Miniature and Micro UAVs

Smaller, tactical UAVs are being developed to support tactical units with very short range “over the hill” and “around the corner” intelligence, and assist in force protection. While each mission requires a different profile and capabilities, the man portable Miniature Aerial Vehicles (MAVs) are designed to provide reasonably good performance at an affordable price. To effectively support the field troops, smaller UAVs are designed, ranging from man portable (back packable) systems to insect-sized “mesicopters”, and miniature “smart dust” sensors. They could be launched by hand, deployed by larger UAVs, or ejected from artillery or mortar projectiles, as expendable sensors. These systems are broadly designated as MAV. Current systems are relatively large for a “micro” designation. However, new electro- opto-mechanical integrated micro systems currently in research and development stage will enable these systems to be much smaller, and operate autonomously in concert, to monitor and sense the battlefield, and to engage and defeat a wide variety of hostile targets across the entire spectrum of conflict. US has conducted tests with many types of MAVs [less than 15 cms] however these types of UAVs do not seem to have been deployed operationally at present.

Endurance UAVs

As far as unmanned aircraft systems have come in the past decade, the emerging race to satisfy the US military’s demand for unblinking sensor and communications relay coverage over vast areas will push designs and technology for unmanned aircraft even further. Leading the quest are two rival designs so advanced that they have been in development and consumed hundreds of millions of dollars in investment over nearly a decade to reach this point. Both the AeroVironment Global Observer (GO) and the Boeing Phantom Eye programmes were finally closed down. The Pentagon closed the development contract for the Global Observer, the reason being the crash in April 2011. The Global Observer was used as a technology demonstration, not a program for a functioning aircraft. In April 2013, the Pentagon stated that no service or defense agency had advocated for it to be a program. AeroVironment is currently in possession of the second prototype Global Observer.

As far Phantom Eye is concerned although the primary role was airborne surveillance, Boeing pitched it as a communications relay for the U.S. Navy. Boeing said that iIt would have a role in the Navy without taking up space on an aircraft carrier with long-range reconnaissance still provided by the MQ-4C Triton. A pair of Phantom Eyes, one relieving the other after days of constant flight, could provide the Navy with continuous long range communications.

The latest endurance record for an unmanned aerial vehicle flight now officially belongs to Zephyr, the solar powered UAV built by Qinetiq, according to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI). The Zephyr UAV achieved three world records in July 2010. The UAV was launched for flight trials on 9 July 2010 and stayed aloft for 14 nights (336 hours 22 minutes) at an altitude of 70,740ft (21,561m) above the US Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. It was brought back to the earth on the morning of 23 July 2010.

Employment in the Future

The military role of unmanned aircraft systems is growing at unprecedented rates. In 2005, tactical- and theater-level unmanned aircraft alone had flown over 1,00,000 flight hours in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, in which they were organised under Task Force Liberty in Afghanistan and Task Force ODIN in Iraq. Rapid advances in technology are enabling more and more capability to be placed on smaller airframes, which is spurring a large increase in the number of small unmanned aircraft systems (SUAS) being deployed on the battlefield. As the capabilities grow for all types of UAS, nations continue to subsidize their research and development, leading to further advances and enabling them to perform a multitude of missions. UAS no longer only perform intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions, although this still remains their predominant type. Their roles have expanded to areas including electronic attack, drone strikes, suppression or destruction of enemy air defense, network node or communications relay, combat search and rescue, and derivations of these themes. These UAS range in cost from a few thousand dollars to tens of millions of dollars, with aircraft weighing from less than half kilogram to over 18 tons.

Indian UAVs

UAVs are low-cost, low-risk, high payoff intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and target acquisition (TA ) systems. UAVs can be deployed quickly to cover vast areas and, hence, enhance responsiveness. The employment of UAVs improves situational awareness, helps to increase the operational tempo and reduces the sensorto- shooter time lag. When employed in conjunction with other sensors, UAVs assist in confirming or negating the efficacy of information gathered and, thus, qualitatively improve the intelligence available to commanders. Some of the UAVs in use or being developed are given below.

Nishant – Made for Indian Army, this UAV was developed by DRDO’s branch, Aeronautical Development Establishment. It requires a launching system with catapult technology as it doesn’t have self-propelling ability and gets down with the help of a parachute. Four Nishant UAVs were given to the Army and all four crashed while being operated. The Indian army has cancelled further orders of this UAV and decided to retire Nishant.

Heron – India already had about 12 Heron-1 drones before the 2005 sale, and they played a crucial part in search and rescue operations following the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004. IAI Searcher tactical UAVs and their high-end Heron UAV counterparts were used to locate trapped survivors and missing bodies near the Andaman and Nicobar islands, relaying clear live feed photographs while in flight, and allowing immediate response as soon as survivors or victims were identified on screen.

The Heron UAV is reportedly capable of flying for over 24 hours at a time at altitudes around 32,000 feet. IAI lists flight time as >40 hours, and says that it has demonstrated 52 hours of continuous flight. It has a maximum range of about 3,000 km and can carry a maximum payload weighing 250 kg/550 lbs. As a large MALE (Medium Altitude, Long Endurance) UAV, it’s built to carry multiple payloads at a time for a variety of missions.

The Indian government had approved the purchase of ten armed UAVs from Israel Aerospace Industries, following a fasttracking of the program by the Modi administration in September 2015. The $400 million acquisition will see ten IAI Heron TP drones join other Israeli designs operated by the Indian Air Force, with Harpy loitering munitions. It seems that Heron is now being operated by all three Services i.e. Army, Navy and the Air Force.

Harpy – The IAI Harpy is a loitering munition produced by Israel Aerospace Industries. The Harpy is designed to attack radar systems and is optimised for the SEAD role. It carries a high explosive warhead. It has a maximum speed of 185 km/hr and 500 km range of flight. The Harpy has been sold to several foreign nations, including South Korea, Turkey, India, and China.


All three Services operate the Searcher series of UAVs. The Indian Army has reportedly deployed its first batch of 25 Israeli-made Searcher Mark II unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over its frontiers with Pakistan and China. As per media reports, India has purchased 100 of the reconnaissance drones at a cost of $750 million and may double this order. The Indian Army operates both Searcher Mk I and II. The Searcher Mark II is produced by Israel Aircraft Industries. It can remain airborne for 16 hours and has a maximum range of 150 kilometers at the relatively high altitude of 18,500 feet, making it especially suitable for missions over the Himalayas.Developed by Israel, this UAV can attain a speed of 200km/hour and can fly up to 18 hours at the relatively high altitude of 18,500 feet, making it especially suitable for missions over the Himalayas. Indian Army,Navy and Air Force are the users in Indian armed forces. It performs the role of reconnaissance in the armed forces.


It is an unnamed combat air vehicle, a production of DRDO dedicated to all three services of Indian armed forces. The project is under progress and some top private players in defence field are bidding for its manufacturing deal. This UAV has come with wheels which makes its take-off and landing a bit ahead of Nishant. Its variant Rustom -2 is also under progress with more specification and durability.

On February 25, 2018, India’s premier defence research institute DRDO carried out “successful” test flight of its Rustom 2 drone, a medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), at Chalakere in Karnataka’s Chitradurga district. Rustom 2 is being developed on the lines of predator drones of the US to carry out surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) roles for the armed forces with an endurance of 24 hours, officials said.

DRDO successfully flew its Rustom 2 at its Aeronautical Test Range (ATR ) at Chalakere at Chitradurga. This flight assumes significance due to the fact that this is the first flight in user configuration with higher power engine. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) said the test flight was “successful” and all its parameters were “normal”.

Lakshya-Pilotless Target aircraft

This pilotless target aircraft is manufactured by HAL and Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) of DRDO for the primary use of Army, Navy and Airforce. The main purpose of its development is target acquisition and reconnaissance. It has a rocket assisted launch and lands through a parachute. The glamour of this UAV attracted many countries like Singapore, Israel, etc.

Indian Army’s UAV Requirements

The army plans to buy high-tech unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to strengthen its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities and improve the effectiveness of its military operations.

The force is laying the groundwork for acquiring more than 120 high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) UAVs, a senior officer told HT. Such UAVs can fly at over 60,000ft and remain airborne for over 30 hours. The army’s existing unmanned systems’ fleet comprises Heron medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAVs, and the smaller Searcher Mark II tactical drones, both built by Israel Aerospace Industries. Herons can fly at over 35,000ft and feed airborne intelligence for over 45 hours compared to Searchers that operate at 15,000ft for nearly 20 hours.

“The higher you go, the more you see,” said Lieutenant General Subrata Saha (Retd), army’s deputy chief till March 2017. “The precision afforded by HALE UAVs comes with top-end technology that can be expensive.” The army is waiting for local vendors to respond to a request for information (RFI) for 60 short-range remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) that can operate for 10 hours at 15,000ft.

Future Milestones


In a major step forward for what is by far India’s most ambitious aviation exercise, the first budgetary funds have begun to flow into Project Ghatak. The classified effort to build a stealthy unmanned combat air vehicle formally received sanction as a ‘Lead-in Project’ in May 2016. A project that has direct oversight from the Prime Minister’s Office and the National Security Advisor, Ghatak (which began as the DRDO’s Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft – AURA) has remained steadily out of view. Unheard of in, precious little is known about the project beyond the very basics.

Ghatak is likely to be powered by a modified dry thrust version of the Kaveri engine. It will have a flying wing planform with internal weapons and will sport stealth characteristics developed wholly in-house. While the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA ) is overseeing the programme along with the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), the real R&D is being frontfooted by two academic institutions: IIT Bombay and IIT Kanpur.

UAV Panchi

Punchi is a wheeled version of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Nishant which is undergoing trials. UAV Panchi has some plus points as compared to UAV Nishant. It doesn’t contain parachutes and landing bags which reduces its weight and increases its endurance and its small size as compared to Nishant makes it hard to find in the enemy’s sky.

Predator Guardian Drones from US

The US has cleared the sale of predator Guardian drones to India, as President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged on Monday to deepen their defence and security cooperation. “Reflecting the partnership, the US has offered for India’s consideration the sale of Sea Guardian Unmanned Aerial Systems,” the joint statement said.

India is looking to buy 22 predator Guardian drones from the US for $2 billion. India is buying the unarmed Guardian unmanned aircraft system (UAS) which was developed by the US Office of Air and Marine (OAM ) in partnership with the US Coast Guard. The Guardian has been modified from a standard Reaper with structural, avionic and communication enhancements and an added Raytheon SeaVue Marine Search Radar. Its Electro-optical/Infrared Sensor is optimized for maritime operations.

The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper (sometimes called Predator B) is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capable of remotely controlled or autonomous flight operations, developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) primarily for the United States Air Force. The engine of the aircraft is integrated with Digital Electronic Engine Control (DEC). It enhances the performance of the engine and increases its capability to prevent wasteful consumption of fuel at lower altitudes. Currently the drone is being used by Australia, Dominican Republic, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, United Kingdom and the United States. The aircraft can be flown for over 27 hours in the air at a maximum altitude of 50,000 feet and a maximum speed of 240 KTA S. With a fault tolerant, triple-redundant flight control system, the drone has more than 90 per cent system operational availability.