Procurement: Innovation And Opportunity

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February 19, 2021: The Indian Army is purchasing $20 million worth of Switch VTOL (Vertical Takeoff and Landing) UAVs from Ideaforge, an Indian firm that needs the sale to stay in business. Ideaforge was founded in 2007 to develop and manufacture commercial quad-copter and other lightweight commercial UAVs. From the beginning the idea was to sell to the Indian government, which has a very aggressive “buy Indian” policy and will pay more for Indian made items than comparable or superior foreign-made models.

The Switch UAV is a good example. It is a 6.5 kg (14.3 pound) battery powered UAV that looks like a fixed wing UAV with four propellers. It has VSTOL capability because the four propellers can switch between two modes; one for propelling the UAV like a conventional fixed wing aircraft, and the other to perform like a quadcopter. Switch has endurance of 120 minutes and can operate up to 15 kilometers (line of sight) from the operator base station. Payload is two kg (4.4 pounds) and usually consists of a day/night vidcam with a 1280x720 pixel day resolution and 640x480 pixel for the night vision mode. Built to military-commercial standards, the only problem is the price, which varies between $21,000 and $27,000 depending on quantities and payload options. Another important feature is that it is equipped with the Indian NPNT (No-Permission No-Takeoff) software that prevents UAVs from operating in restricted areas. The NPNT law took effect in 2018 after a 2014 law banning all remotely controlled civilian UAVs because they were deemed a terrorist threat. This caused a lot of opposition from commercial firms that used consumer and commercial grade UAVs for security, survey and a growing number of other essential services. To deal with that India developed NPTP, which is similar to laws recently enacted in other nations. Most foreign UAV manufacturers decided not to build NPTP compliant versions of their products because NPTP was too strict and the Indian market too small. Chinese UAV manufacturer, DJI, controls 75 percent of the worldwide consumer quad-copter market and agreed that the Indian market was not worth the expense and hassle of becoming NPTP compliant.

This situation was a lifesaver for the few Indian UAV firms, like Ideaforge, which could copy existing foreign designs, add NPTP and sell their “Indian” UAVs to the military and India-based businesses. The four founders of Ideaforge were all graduates of engineering schools and able to handle design, development and production of UAVs. There is actually a sub-community among quad-copter and fixed-wing UAV users that build and modify existing or their own UAV own designs. There are suppliers of components and this sort of thing helped Iranian and North Korean engineers to develop and build small UAVs.

Since its inception in 2007 Ideaforge was kept alive with millions of venture capital infusions of cash. Eventually Ideaforge was able to get government contracts to provide Indian-made UAVs for military and non-military purposes, and this helped Ideaforge remain in business for over a decade. It was also obvious that Ideaforge would never be profitable, or repay the venture capital investors with all the foreign competition. Then came NPTP and Ideaforge quickly made their existing lineup of quad-copters compliant. Then came the $20 million order from the army. Now Ideaforge had a chance to prosper.

The Switch, for example, is similar to existing Israeli, Iranian and Chinese designs. The Israeli WanderB UAV, for example is a 13 kg battery powered UAV with a 150- minute endurance. WanderB can operate from 50 to 80 kilometers from the operator. WanderB was introduced in 2018 and offered in India with NPTP, even if it required finding an Indian partner to manufacture it in India. That does not always work because getting government approval for those joint-production deals can take years. Meanwhile Ideaforge is getting the big sales.

A Chinese firm, Eagle Aviation Technology, apparently developed designs used by the Indian and Israeli VTOL UAVs and offered them as the SD-10, a battery powered model similar to Switch and WanderB as well as a larger (40 kg) version, the SD40. Both are commercial UAVs anyone can purchase. Like many Chinese commercial UAVs, they are also used by the military. For example, in early 2019 a Chinese destroyer in the South China Sea was seen using the SD40 off its helicopter deck. At first, it was thought this was a new military developed VTOL UAV but after checking what was available commercially it was identified as the SD40, a UAV offered for sale to commercial users for operating over land or sea. The SD40 is small, only 40 kg (88 pounds) and apparently intended for naval use on smaller ships (corvettes and patrol boats). Chinese destroyers use larger manned and unmanned helicopters due to their larger payloads, longer flight time and better stability in high winds, as are frequently encountered at sea. But the SD40 is a hybrid quadcopter/fixed-wing propeller-driven UAV. The SD40 is a triple fuselage battery-powered quadcopter (for takeoff and landing) that switches to a gasoline-powered rear propeller in the larger main fuselage and proceeds as a fixed-wing aircraft once aloft. The two smaller outer fuselages each contain two of the quadcopter rotors and batteries for takeoff, landing or hovering. The 3.7 meter (11.8 feet) fixed-wing provides plenty of lift and stability for level flight and a max speed of 180 kilometers an hour. Cruising speed is 100-140 kilometers an hour. Max payload is 6 kg (13 pounds) which will handle a wide range of day/night vidcams or even a lightweight radar (SAR or lidar). SD40 has an endurance of up to six hours, depending on how much hovering is done. Max altitude is 5,000 meters (16,000 feet) although normal operating altitudes are 1,000-3,000 meters. SD40 was a good concept but many UAV users saw room for improvement and firms like IdeaForge are making the most of that in a protected Indian market.

 


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