Ignited minds: Spread your wings in unmanned, laser, stealth technologies

File Photo: Most loved Indian President Dr A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, the Missile Man.

(Editor’s Note: The views are that of the author’s. For the writer’s other interests, read the credit line at the end of the article.)

By Lieutenant General Vijay Kumar Saxena

Dr A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, the ‘Missile Man of India’; the spirit behind the Indian Space Research Organisation‘s launch vehicle technology; the driving force behind the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the 11th President of the Republic of India is a legend who requires no  introduction.

In order to keep the memories of Dr Kalam’s memory alive and in order to propel his vision of ‘Self-Reliant India’  through ‘ignited minds’ wired to think differently, DRDO in Jan. 2019 launched an ‘innovation contest’ imaginatively titled ‘Dare to Dream 1.0’.

Photo: DRDO’s technology innovation contest.

This contest which ran from Jan 2019 to Mar 2020, threw a ‘dare’ to young minds  and startups to innovate, generate ideas and bring out something new in disruptive and cutting edge technologies that can be taken up for more expansive research leading to a product.

The aim was to use the power of young and innovative minds to help the DRDO ‘see the unseen’. Who knows a ‘one bright idea’; one simple out of the box solution, proves to be a big one enabling many steps up on the  technology  ladder, or it may turn out to be a ‘eureka moment’ in solving something that was stuck for a  long time. Who knows, really?

Keeping the precedent alive, DRDO on July 27 launched the second edition of the contest; ‘Dare to Dream 2.0’.

While the details of the contest have not yet been uploaded on the DRDO website, these will supposedly be on the lines of ‘Dare to Dream 1.0’ – open to Indian citizens above 18 years or to startups which are wholly owned by Indians with a prize money of Rs 500,000 for individuals and Rs 1,000,000 for start-ups etc.

While all the above and more are the details related to procedural formalities, what is big is – ‘what to innovate?’ What are those technology areas where the forces (read DRDO) is simmering at ‘near boil’ just short of the cutting edge but is not able to touch the finish line. What are the trending technologies where the ‘mind power’ of young India can make a huge difference thus living out the dream of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’.

Technology is a universe by itself, a fathomless ocean, if you please. This article makes an attempt to pick up just a few droplets out of this ocean, which  could attract the attention of the young minds.

Ever since the advent of the ‘unmanned’ phenomenon, the battlefield has never been the same. The ‘dull dirty and dangerous’ have not only crossed all the known barriers of all-terrain-all weather operability, but also, have set up new and newer limits of endurance.

Their ever-increasing limits of carriage of munitions both by quantum and lethality has given the manned platforms- a run for their money. THE UNMANNED WORLD IS HAPPENING. It is in this field where the young minds can make a difference. Some possible areas:

Photo: Manned and Unmanned Teaming Operations (MUM-T)
  1. New communication and data transfer technologies and software tools of navigation and control that can achieve ‘total vehicle autonomy’.  In that, an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) is enabled to carry out its assigned mission end-to-end with no dependence on the ground control station.
  2. Development of software packages and intercommunication protocols that will enable the unmanned platforms to communicate and exchange data with combat pilots seamlessly in Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) operations.
  3. While Hindustan Aeronautics Limited can carry on with its swarm drones (ALPHA-S), the innovators can think of developing some really small machines, which can operate together as a swarm. Putting Artificial Intelligence in them as pre-programmed software so that they possess a mind of their own and as an intelligent swarm, operate in a grid. These swarms may possess a degree of survivability against losses, have the ability to navigate to a desired location and release the payload carried. The challenge is not productionise anything, just an idea or at best a Proof of Concept (PoC) will be an achievement enough.
  4. While the drone is an attacker’s delight, it is a defender’s nightmare. Any bright ideas to bring down small drones? Any new ideas how to deal with the emerging threat of swarm drones. Catastrophic collision/Laser kill/Radio-Frequency kill?
Photo: Swarm Drones, the deadly warriors

These days while there is a lot of emphasis on the soft-kill weapons, not many deft hands and bright ideas are actually developing the projects and technologies to take this weapon-field forward in the private industry.

Take the case of laser-kill weapons. While some development is taking place at DRDO (details classified), there are stumbling roadblocks in the areas of adequate power of the laser and achieving the required range.

Another challenge is the split-weapon configuration, in which, the power source remains on ground while its application is routed up to the target using laser optics thus getting over the issue of power deficit.

While whole weapon design will be beyond the scope of innovation competition, some bright ideas to optimise the space-to-power in generation of laser power may be welcome. Could there be some alternative source-route, where laser power can be generated in confined space optimising the weight of the entire equipment?

Photo: Laser Kill, the emerging soft kill weapons.

Also some start up could take a call on soft-kill weapons beyond laser and present some weapon ideas in the niche fields of high power microwaves or charged particle beams; of course limited to ideas/PoC.

Another area on fire is stealth and anti-stealth, as related to aerospace sector. This fire is burning at both ends. On one end, are the 4th and 5th generation aerial platforms that are bringing to battle newer and newer techniques of stealth in trying to reduce their observability to the adversary’s sensors, while on the other, are the resolute air defenders who are riding high on the enabling wings of technology to defeat stealth. It is this area, which can attract the attention of innovators. Some possible points:

  1. Ideas on new age ‘radar-absorbent materials’ which enhance stealth component of aerial threat vehicles.
  2. Some new detection techniques to detect stealthy vehicles. Currently in the field of detection there is a binary solution. One through radars (VHF, HF based radars, and quantum radars) and the other through the route of electro-optical devices .
Photo: Stealthy air threat vehicles, defenders’ nightmare.

Dare to the young minds is to think something new – may be detection on RF signature recognition, detecting stealth through the ‘absence’ of it (that is, trying to detect a dark patch of stealthy vehicle which refuses to paint itself on the radar screen or reviving the Word War II German concept of Schelrin photography in trying to detect stealth through the flow of fluids of varying density.)

 One stumbling block that has kept us away from designing weapon system has been the miniaturisation of parts. Take the case of Very Short Range Air Defence Missile (VSHORAD) also called the MANPADS (generic dimensions- length 1.5m, weight- 10-15 kg). The seeker of VSHORAD (active or passive) which detects the aerial target sitting in the head of this missile is a miniaturised version of an active seeker. To get this level of miniaturisation in the seeker has been a challenge that continues to stare us in the eye.  

While designing a complete seeker will surely be out of the scope of this minor competition, some bright idea on miniaturisation would be welcome.

Apart from the above there could be hundreds of other ideas. While these cannot be comprehensively listed, a few are enumerated:

  1. New ideas on jam-proof communication.
  2. Software tools to deal with jamming attack on radar sensors.
  3. Real time situational awareness tools based on small drones.
  4. New data collection, shifting and analysis tools.
  5. Hand-held drones in the hands of the front-line war fighter.
  6. Some new concepts and ideas on hazard protection equipment.
  7. Creating virtual reality through AI tools for multiple applications.
  8. Something new on composite materials for enhancing their characteristics like malleability, ductability, tensile strength, buildability etc.
  9. Some new ideas on individual protection equipment (bullet proof jackets, Nuclear-Biological-Chemical protection gear, anti-germ masks, ventilators.).
  10. Crowd control/riot control weapon concepts.
  11. Something on simulation concepts creating reality where none exists.
  12. Ideas on robotics.

This list can go on. This is as infinite as the creativity of the human mind.

(The writer is a former Director General of the Corps of Army Air Defence)

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