Technology giant

Print edition : March 11, 2011

ARJUN MAIN BATTLE Tank Mark I during trials in the Rajasthan desert in December 2010. - COURTESY: CVRDE

With 52 laboratories spread across the country and staffed with 7,000 engineers and scientists, the DRDO is virtually an empire.

THE Light Combat Aircraft [LCA] Tejas is the Indian signature on the sky. This cryptic remark made by W. Selvamurthy, Chief Controller (Life Sciences), Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), summed up the patriotic fervour that filled the hundreds of people present at the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) airfield in Bangalore on January 10, 2011, as the indigenously built Tejas soared into the sky. As Tejas disappeared into the horizon, Defence Minister A.K. Antony handed over the Certificate of Release to Service to the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik. This signals the grant of Initial Operations Clearance (IOC) to Tejas and means that the world's lightest fighter aircraft can now be produced at HAL. It was a moment to cherish.

The 20-year struggle to build Tejas is a story of collaboration between the various laboratories of the DRDO. Its Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) was the nodal organisation and the other agencies involved were the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE), HAL, Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) and private units. V.K. Saraswat, Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister, described the grant of the IOC as a new page in the history of Indian aeronautics. He was proud that during Tejas' 10 years of flight trials of 1,500 hours, there was not a single moment when the aircraft's safety record was in doubt. Today, 60 per cent of Tejas' components are indigenous, and by the time it receives its Final Operations Clearance, this figure will touch 75 per cent, said Saraswat, who is also DRDO Director-General. (Tejas is powered by a GE-404 engine imported from the United States).

Tejas is our technology. It means we can upgrade it any time, Selvamurthy told Frontline. The Indian Air Force has placed orders for 40 Tejas aircraft, each of which will cost Rs.180 crore to build. The DRDO has already developed a two-seater trainer version. Work is under way on a naval version. Besides, feasibility studies are under way at the ADA on India's Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft.

With 52 laboratories spread across the country and staffed with 7,000 engineers and scientists, the DRDO is virtually an empire. It is determined to empower the Army, the Navy and the Air Force with cutting-edge defence technologies. Its core philosophy is to make India's defence systems self-reliant. Its engineers and technicians work in diverse disciplines such as aeronautics, missiles, armaments, combat vehicles, combat engineering, ammunition, life sciences, agriculture, electronics including radars, nuclear-powered submarines, robotics, avalanche-arresting techniques, nanotechnology, materials and naval systems. Some statistics will reveal how successful the DRDO is in its march towards self-reliance. In the past seven years alone, the DRDO has developed systems whose production value has been estimated at Rs.1 lakh crore. These systems include a variety of missiles; the Main Battle Tank, Arjun Mark I; the LCA Tejas; nuclear, biological and chemical warfare (NBC) defence technologies; radar; sonar; rifles; sub-machine guns; armoured ambulances; infantry combat vehicles; robots; torpedoes; portable sitcom terminals; kits to detect viruses; parachutes; anti-fouling paints; anti-eczema cream; ready-to-eat food items for soldiers posted at Siachen; a cream to treat frostbite; and a herbal mosquito repellent.

Our spectrum of products is very wide. We cover the largest canvas in the country. But we have a specific user the armed forces, said Saraswat. Selvamurthy echoed his words. From agriculture to the Agni missile to the Light Combat Aircraft, the DRDO has made a mark everywhere.

Out of the Rs.1,00,000-crore worth of systems put into production, Rs.600 crore worth of systems for NBC defence have been inducted into the Services. Both the public sector and private industries produce them.

A country should be strong in four areas if it is to be able defend itself against NBC warfare. They are standard operating procedures with command and control centres to ensure smooth flow of information for a quick response; guidelines to handle the situation; trained manpower to detect the use of NBC warfare agents, demarcate the affected areas, evacuate people and decontaminate the area; and detection, diagnostic and therapeutic technologies for medical management of the catastrophe.

The DRDO has contributed to the country in all these four areas, Selvamurthy said. Its scientists have helped formulate the guidelines framed by the National Disaster Management Authority for the eventuality of NBC warfare. Three DRDO laboratories the Institute of Nuclear Medicine and Allied Sciences, New Delhi; the Defence Research & Development Establishment (DRDE), Gwalior; and the Defence Laboratory, Jodhpur impart training to personnel in demarcating affected areas, evacuating people, protecting them and giving them medical help.

The DRDO has developed an array of detection systems, including roentgenometers, pocket dosimeters and portable dose-rate meters to measure radiation doses; a nuclear instrument called the Radiation Detection, Measurement and Control (RADMAC) Unit to estimate gamma radiation; and gamma flash sensors to sense nuclear explosions. It has developed a portable gas chromatograph that is capable of detecting 20 chemical agents at a time.

The DRDO has come up with a nerve agent detector too a simple paper with three colours that can be used by anybody. All that soldiers have to do is to stick the paper on their clothing; the paper will change colour in the presence of any nerve agent.

Cost-effective kits have been developed for diagnosing/detecting A(H1N1) swine flu virus, typhoid, malaria, anthrax, leptospirosis, chikungunya, dengue and the plague. These simple and sensitive instruments can be used by jawans and villagers. The DRDE developed the swine flu detection kit. R. Vijayaraghavan, DRDE Director, called the kit a powerful tool. It is much more specific and sensitive than the conventional kit developed by the World Health Organisation. The DRDO kit does not use sophisticated instruments but uses a simple technique called reverse transcription-loop-mediated isothermal amplification (RT-LAMP). More than 1,000 samples were analysed by the two kits. The samples missed by the WHO kit were detected by the DRDO kit, Selvamurthy said. This was confirmed by findings of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). While the WHO kit costs Rs.8,000 and takes eight to 10 hours to come up with its findings, the DRDO kit costs Rs.1,500 and gives results in about an hour.

V.K. SARASWAT, Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister and Director-General of the DRDO.-V. GANESAN

The technology has been transferred to Bigtec Labs, Bangalore, which has come up with a simplified, ready-to-go version of the kit. This version will go on trial at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, Bangalore; the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, New Delhi; and the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education & Research, Chandigarh. About 200 samples will be tested. Tests are in progress and there is good correlation between the findings of the WHO kit and the DRDO kit. All queries from the Director-General, ICMR, are being answered for the final clearance of the kit, Vijayaraghavan said.

A bio-toilet developed by the DRDE, and produced by a private company, Escorts Railway Equipment Division, Faridabad, became a big hit during the recent Commonwealth Games held in New Delhi. The DRDE originally developed it for soldiers posted at high altitudes and in glacial areas. The efficacy of the bio-toilet, which uses a bacterial consortium to degrade human waste into carbon dioxide, hydrogen, methane and water, was proved during the Games. The toilets have been installed in all the coaches of the Bundelkhand Express.

The latest development is that the Lakshadweep administration has installed 21 bio-toilets in Lakshadweep, Kavaratti and Bangaram islands. The administration has placed orders for 10,000 such toilets. The bacterial efficiency is excellent and we have confidence in the system now, said Vijayaraghavan.

On the basis of the philosophy of lure and kill, the DRDO has developed a larvicide to combat the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which spreads chikungunya and dengue. Conventionally, larvicides are used in ponds, lakes and other waterbodies to prevent mosquitoes breeding.

Selvamurthy explained: But the DRDO did some path-breaking research in isolating the pheromone that is secreted by the larvae. The pheromones attract female mosquitoes to lay eggs (oviposition attractant). We chemically synthesised the pheromone and combined the larvicide with the pheromone. So, it is no more a larvicide but an attracticide.

It attracts the female mosquitoes, traps them in the waterbody and kills them. The attracticide is environmentally safe. The manufacturing technology has been transferred to six private industries. The Central government has asked States in which dengue and chikungunya are endemic to use it.

An iron removal unit (IRU) that can reduce the iron content of ferruginous water to WHO standards is also in the DRDO bag. The IRU is cylindrical in shape, about 1.75 metres tall and with a diameter of one metre. It can provide 300 litres of clean water an hour and is easy to install. It can cater to the needs of army barracks and small populations living in remote areas, where there is no access to treated water.

The Defence Bioengineering and Electrochemical Laboratory (DEBEL) in Bangalore has developed a unique on-board oxygen generation system (OBOGS). It can administer the required quantity of oxygen at varying altitudes to pilots of fighter aircraft on long missions and prevent them from losing consciousness owing to severe gravity (G) forces. The innovation here is that oxygen can be administered on demand. The OBOGS forms part of the integrated life support system (ILSS) for fighter aircraft pilots developed by a team of scientists at DEBEL led by Director, V.C. Padaki.

Since fighter aircraft can nowadays fly for an extended period because of the availability of mid-air refuelling facilities, the endurance of pilots has to concomitantly increase. If the aircraft were to carry several oxygen cylinders of the conventional type, the weight of the payload (missiles) would have to be reduced. In the ILSS, the nitrogen in air is removed, and the oxygen is concentrated, compressed and bottled in light-weight cylinders made of composites. The OBOGs keeps pilots' oxygen status at sea level even when they are flying at high altitudes.

The ILSS has a component called the Demand Oxygen Regulator (DOR), which will ensure that oxygen is delivered to pilots as per altitude requirements and during the anti-G straining manoeuvres that pilots undertake during combat missions. This will economise the use of oxygen. According to Padaki, the contraption has a novel electronics unit that will ensure proper functioning of the OBOGS at changing altitudes and activate a back-up system in case of failure.

W. SELVAMURTHY, Chief Controller (Life Sciences), DRDO.-K. ANANTHAN

The OBOGS will be tested in ground trials in Tejas after three months and will ultimately be integrated with it. The system will be customised for integration with Sukhoi-30, Jaguar, Mirage-2000 and MiG-29. The IAF will definitely go for this system because it will cost less than the imported version, Padaki said.

The DRDO has developed an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), Nishant, and a pilotless target aircraft, Lakshya. Both are under production. They will be used for battlefield surveillance and reconnaissance, target-tracking and correcting artillery fire. Nishant can fly uninterrupted for four hours and 30 minutes. The DRDO is proud of its UAV Vihanga Netra, which can monitor snow cover and avalanches in remote places, detect crevasses and help in mapping safe routes.

The DRDO's latest UAV, developed at the ADE in Bangalore, is Rustom-1, a medium-altitude, long-endurance vehicle. It was successfully test-flown in October 2010 in the presence of Prahlada, Chief Controller (Aeronautics and Services Interaction), DRDO, and P.S. Krishnan, Director, ADE. It flew exactly as planned up to an altitude of 3,000 feet and remained airborne for 30 minutes. Rustom-1 can fly for about 15 hours at an altitude of 25,000 feet with a payload of 75 kg. It is a forerunner to the more advanced Rustom-H, a Rs.1,500-crore project, and the Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV).

The future is in UCAVs for reconnaissance and surveillance. They will do actual combat. They will bomb and return to the base. They are reusable, said Selvamurthy.

Since naval warfare is highly complex and technology-intensive, the DRDO set up the Directorate of Naval Research and Development to coordinate the activities of the Naval Physical Oceanographic Laboratory (NPOL) in Kochi, the Naval Science and Technological Laboratory (NSTL) in Visakhapatnam and the Naval Materials Research Laboratory (NMRL) at Ambernath, near Mumbai. These three laboratories work towards making the Navy self-reliant in underwater weapons and they have developed an anti-submarine torpedo, Torpedo Advanced Light (TAL), which can be launched from ships and helicopters and has a speed of 33 knots an hour. It has a parachute system that ensures that it attains a touchdown velocity of 30-40 metres per second during helicopter launch. TAL has a state-of-the-art sensor package, an on-board computer, acoustic sensors, and so on, all indigenous and proved in sea trials.

Another product the DRDO is proud of is Varunastra, a ship-launched anti-submarine torpedo. It has electric propulsion, advanced guidance algorithms, multi-manoeuvring capabilities over a long range, a deadly warhead and can reach a speed of 40 knots. A family of sonars named Humsa, Nagan, Ushus and Machendra have been developed and integrated with ships and submarines. The Advanced Panoramic Sonar Hull Mounted (APSOH) sonar system is the first to be indigenously developed for use in warships.

The Aerial Delivery Research and Development Establishment (ADRDE) in Agra Cantonment specialises in developing a variety of parachutes for para-dropping troops, guns, combat vehicles, ammunitions and even for the recovery of UAVs. Some parachutes developed by the ADRDE can drop loads weighing four to nine tonnes from Il-76 aircraft. Brake parachutes are among the other products of the ADRE.

They facilitate the safe landing of aircraft on short or snowy runways, and in emergencies or when there is an aborted take-off. In the Indian Space Research Organisation's recoverable satellites mission in January 2007, the ADRDE's three parachutes unfolded in a ballet-like sequence, one after another, over the Bay of Bengal and helped the satellite make a perfect touchdown in the waters.

The ADRDE has diversified into lighter-than-air technologies and developed small and medium-sized aerostats. It successfully flew a medium-sized aerostat filled with helium gas several times over Agra in December 2010. These trials helped in keeping surveillance over Agra and intercepting a variety of communication.

Prahlada praised the ADRDE for graduating from a laboratory that designed and developed balloons and parachutes to one that develops systems of systems. The aerostats, he said, would be useful for the three Services, the paramilitary forces and in civilian applications such as disaster management.

A Combat Free Fall System helps paratroopers jump from high altitudes, glide long distances or land at specific spots. The system comprises a ram-jet parachute, an oxygen cylinder, jumpsuit, communication system and navigational equipment.

The DRDO's Pune-based laboratories the Research and Development Establishment (Engineers), the Armament Research and Development Establishment, and the High Energy Materials Research Laboratory have rolled out massive contraptions such as Pinaka, the multi-barrel rocket launching system; Sarvatra that can lay a 75-m long and 25-m wide bridge in 90 minutes; the Amphibious Floating Bridge and Ferry System (AFFS), which can carry battle tanks and trucks across rivers; a bridge-laying tank (BLT), which is an avatar of the Main Battle Tank Arjun; Indian Small Arms System (INSAS) rifles; and propellants and ammunition for missiles, rockets, battle tanks, artillery and guns. A Sarvatra bridge can withstand 10,000 passes of battle tanks. The Army has procured more than one million INSAS rifles so far.

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