On 16 December 2022, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) released a Request for Information (RFI) (broadly, a document intended to find potential suppliers) for the acquisition of 570 scalable and upgradable Logistic Drones (LD) for the Indian Army (IA). The RFI envisions two variants of these drones: LD (Standard)(S) for deployment below 12,000 feet and LD (High Altitude)(HA) for deployment above 12,000 feet. The RFI specifies that Indian suppliers must comply with the Buy (Indian-IDDM), Buy (Indian), or Buy & Make (Indian) categories of the DAP (Defence Acquisition Procedure) -2020. In line with the movement toward self-production in defence production and acquisition, this will ensure that the goods contain an indigenous content (IC) of at least 50% on a cost basis of the basic contract price/make component of the product, if not more.
The RFI (Request for Information) was preceded by an RFP (Request for Proposal), a document that lists the product in detail and solicits bids from qualified vendors for the same) for 163 LD (High Altitude-HA) (capability of launch from not less than 4000 m Above Mean Sea Level (AMSL) and 200 LD (Medium Altitude-MA) UAVs in the Buy (Indian) category under Emergency Procurement through Fast Track Procedure. The FTP calls for the delivery of equipment within one year of contract signing. The RFP elucidates similar operational aspects to the above RFI, which are enumerated following.
In the Indian context, how would LD be defined?
A Logistic Drone (LD) is a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) utilised for the “last mile” transfer of materials necessary for the logistical sustenance of recipient people. The payloads would consist of meals, medical supplies, documents, equipment spares, military equipment, and ammunition (the delivery of crew-served weapons, the advancement of specialised troops, and the evacuation of casualties are future capabilities envisioned for larger, heavy-duty UAVs). The flight modes of an LD could be autonomous, manual, or a combination of the two. These drones would invariably have a return home capability, which is a ‘failsafe’ mechanism that enables the LD to return back to a pre-designated location when there is a non so desirable change in flight parameters (such as a loss of data connectivity with the control station, battery power issues, detected malfunction of sub-assemblies, etc.), or when directed to do so by the remote controller. LD is typically used as part of a logistics UAV fleet to ensure that deployed forces receive uninterrupted logistics support. These LDs may be Single/Multi-Rotor/Fixed-Wing/Fixed-Wing Hybrid Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL). Multi-rotor and hybrid VTOL drones have apparent advantages of stability, better payload capabilities and smaller requirements of real estate for landing/ delivery of cargo. Hybrid VTOL drones offer the added benefits of increased speed (therefore, shorter turnaround time and a greater number of sorties per 24-hour period) and substantially less noise during fixed-wing flight. Because logistical support must be able to perform day and night operations, LD must be night competent (must be able to equip night vision sensors, such as infrared or thermal imagers or low-light televisions) for terminal guiding at drop/landing zones and on the way back to takeoff locations. A requirement would be redundancy in geo-positioning by interoperability with multiple geo-location services (e.g. GPS/ GLONASS/ NAVIC systems). Since LD would operate near its own front line of defence, electric propulsion would be preferred over combustion engines due to its lower noise output. However, this must be evaluated against the power needs, where fuel-powered engines have the advantage. In terms of operating altitude and the capability to take off and land, payload delivery capabilities would need to be consistent with actual areas of operation, such as those along the International Border and the Line of Control/Line of Actual Control with Pakistan and China, respectively. The cruise altitudes above ground level must minimise interference from at least the adversary’s small guns.
The recognition and importance accorded to providing forward deployed troops with resilient, responsive, and nimble logistics support to ensure ‘last mile’ delivery for deployed echelons is demonstrated by the emphasis placed on the acquisition of LD for various terrain configurations that are prevalent along India’s borders, as well as the anticipated operational range of approximately 10 kilometres. Significantly, this would eliminate the need to divert troops for logistical support activities in the rear, thereby enhancing operational effectiveness and minimising the requirement for forward movement of contractual labour, resulting in long-term cost savings. The Ministry of Defense is concerned about the protection of such equipment from nefarious, frequently occurring, adversary-sponsored attempts at degradation. This concern is demonstrated by the Ministry of Defense’s requirement that vendors certify that the product has been sanitised against any malicious code or software that would be detrimental to the Ministry of Defense’s operational interests.
Detailed below are the operational parameters of these LDs, as outlined in the RFI.
Broad Operational Role/ Capability – Capability to carry out ‘Last Mile’ delivery for forward troops deployed along the border areas with capability of operation in adverse wind/gust and rain/snow conditions etc.
Fully Autonomous mode – Manual mode and return home mode.
Mission Range – Not less than 10-20 Km ( one way) with maximum All Up Weight (AUW).
Endurance – Minimum 45 minutes at 500m above takeoff altitude with max AUW, including sensor payload.
Launch and Recovery – Both versions of LD must have launch and landing capability on an unprepared area of not more than 25 m x 25 m.
Payload /Weight Carrying Capability (Excluding Sensors)- ✓ LD (HA)- between 20-40 Kg. ✓ LD (S)- between 40-80 Kg.
Operational altitude – ✓ LD (HA)- 12000- 18000 ft above Mean Sea Level with the capability of achieving not less than 500m Above Ground Level (AGL). ✓ LD (S) -Upto 12000 ft above Mean Sea Level with the capability of achieving not less than 500m AGL.
Operational Temperature – LD (HA): Max- Between 400 to 450 C, Min – Minus 200 to Minus 100 C. LD (S): Max- Between 400 to 450 C, Min – 0 to 50 C.
Maps – Should be compatible with Defence Series maps and GPS, GLONASS, NAVIC and IRNSS. All types of maps provided with the system should be upgradeable.
Security /EW Interference/IFF – Hardened against EW interference, with anti-jamming/anti-spoofing properties and Identification-Friend-or-Foe (IFF) feature to avoid engagement by friendly fire in the tactical battle area.
Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF) and Mean Time to Repair (MTTR) – Mean Time Between Failure should not exceed 15 days, and Mean Time to Repair in the field should not exceed 30 days, in keeping with the requirement of rapid turnaround.
Shelf Life/ Product Support – Capability to withstand not less than 5000 landings for LD (HA) and not less than 10,000 landings for LD (S).
The drones must enjoy product support from the vendor for 15 years.
Some options in the market
While a number of vendors, including a number of Indian startups, are active in the development of logistics drones, some Defence PSUs/Indian vendors/companies from friendly foreign countries are profiled briefly below.
IIT Kanpur and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) have co-developed the Rotary UAV (RUAV)-200. RUAV-200 is a coaxial, rotary-wing, fuel-engine UAV developed as a Long-Range Destroyer (LD) (HA). The LD will have a maximum takeoff weight of 200 kg, 3 hours of endurance, and an operating temperature range of -35 to 55 degrees Celsius. It will have a maximum range of 400 kilometres and a payload capacity of 40 kilograms. The RUAVs 6,000 m service ceiling will allow it to fly in high-altitude terrain. The RUAV is equipped with an electro-optical day/night camera, allowing it to adapt to day/night surveillance missions, such as maritime monitoring. It is also feasible to convert the RUAV into an armed form due to its relatively big size. The network-centric features of the fully autonomous RUAV would make it “future-proof.” HAL is now manufacturing the RUAV, which is expected to take to the skies this year.
DRDO Cargo Drone
The DRDO Young Scientists Laboratory (DYSL) has been entrusted with developing a VTOL, high-altitude freight drone for IA. The eight-propeller LD will have a payload carrying capacity of 50 kg (at MSL) and 20 kg at an extremely high altitude and a range of 10 kilometres. It will be able to be launched from altitudes as high as 5,000 metres. A carbon-composite airframe will permit an exceptionally high payload-to-weight ratio, with a maximum all-up weight of only 80 kg. Additionally, the LD will have AI-based navigation/launch/landing, geo-fencing for operation within a specified geographical area, GPS, and completely autonomous/semi-autonomous/return home flying modes. Since then, the DYSL has released an RFP in search of development partners.
Akshat-HNX75 is an indigenous, heavy-duty, hybrid VTOL UAV that was created and developed by VTOL Aviation India Pvt Ltd and the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur. The hybrid UAV is adaptable for combat support and targeted supply delivery in high altitude/difficult terrain up to 20,000 feet in height, with a maximum takeoff weight of 75 kg. It is equipped with a hybrid electric-fuel powertrain and an integrated “SKYCRANE” Delivery System with a digitally-controlled winch mechanism. The company also produces mini/lightweight VTOL UAVs and hybrid UAVs in the 150/300/800 Kg categories.
Zen Logistics Drones
Zen Technologies Ltd, a vendor based in Hyderabad, has created three variants of LD: Zen Heavy Lift (HL) (payload 20-50 kg), Zen Six Flat (payload 10-30 kg), and Zen Heavy Lift and Long Endurance VTOL Hybrid. The load tray or load bay of the Zen HL LD may handle a standard military jerrican, ammunition boxes, food payloads, and even crew-served weapons. Additionally, the drones may carry an underslung payload. These drones are versatile in terms of their endpoint delivery options, which include landing to offload, hovering and delivering, low/high-hovering and dropping, and para-dropping, letting the operator choose the most appropriate method based on terrain configuration/tactical circumstance. The drones can fly at altitudes of 4,500 metres and climb to elevations of 1,000 metres AGL with a full payload in winds of up to 40 kilometres per hour. The drones are capable of manual/autonomous missions as well as many missions in a single sortie. The HL LD has a maximum total weight of 70 kg with a practical load of 20 kg, an endurance of 30 minutes in day/night and inclement weather (depending on operating altitude), and an operating temperature range of -25 to 55 degrees Celsius. Once configured, the drones are compatible with GPS, GLONASS, and Galileo Navigation Systems and capable of inertial navigation. The drones have a 10 + 10 Km turnaround (10 Km with Load + 10 Km Without Load).
Hexacopter/Ambulance Drone MR-20. The MR-20 was created by the NOIDA (U.P.)-based indigenous enterprise Raphe Mphibr Pvt. Ltd. The IA had placed a contract under Emergency Procurement in September 2021 for 48 MR-20 hexacopter LDs with a maximum load capacity of 20 kilogrammes for logistics support in high-altitude regions. During Drone Mahotsav 2022, the business also displayed its Ambulance Drone at Pragati Maidan in New Delhi. The Ambulance Drone version has a payload capacity of 120 kg (enough for the evacuation of a single patient) and is fitted with an oxygen cylinder and SPO2 and oxygen sensors to monitor a patient’s vital signs in flight.
TechEagle, a private startup company engaged in drone-based logistics, introduced the ‘Vertiplane-X3’ in April 2022, claiming it to be the fastest indigenous hybrid VTOL UAV. The company claims that the Vertiplane-X3 can transport a 3 kg payload over 100 kilometres at speeds of up to 120 kilometres per hour, in high-altitude terrain up to 4,500 metres in altitude, and in harsh temperatures. The UAV can land on/take off from an extremely small piece of land (5m2), making it appropriate for operating in extremely high altitudes/restricted terrain.
ThunderB VTOL UAV
Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and BlueBird Aero Systems have unveiled the improved ThunderB Hybrid VTOL UAV. The UAV, which has a maximum takeoff weight of 40 kg, is also equipped to carry an 8 kg logistics payload, allowing it to conduct persistent land/maritime combat support missions. It features a 12-hour endurance and a 150 km communication range with a digital link and tracking antenna.
EDGE QX-6 Cargo Drone
The QX-6 was displayed at the November 2021 Dubai Airshow. The QX-6 is a rotary-wing VTOL drone manufactured by EDGE Company of the United Arab Emirates. It is a heavy-duty LD with a usable payload carrying capacity of 150 kg for both cargo-bay and underslung loads and an empty weight of 500 kg. This drone’s enormous cargo capacity makes it excellent for rear-end logistics and possible equipment reinforcement/casualty evacuation. It is capable of both autonomous and manned operations. It contains four fuel-powered piston engines that drive numerous rotors with three blades each. The LD has a four-hour endurance.
Forward deployment of IA soldiers typically necessitates lengthy deployments in difficult, high-altitude terrain, where isolation and inhospitable temperature pose mortal concerns. The ongoing operational effectiveness of operationally deployed forces must be assured by dependable, persistent, 24-hour logistics support. LD offers a low-risk and cost-effective approach to meeting the needs for such logistical support.