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A Big Bang Explosion In Arms Business

The laboratories around the world are abuzz with swarming drones, robotics, AI and the Internet of Battle Things. Are we in step?

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In October 2016, the Department of Defence, the Strategic Capabilities Office, partnering with Naval Air Systems Command, successfully demonstrated one of the world’s largest micro-drone swarms at China Lake, California. The test was a significant milestone in defence preparedness and was documented on Sunday’s CBS News programme ‘60 Minutes’. It showcased 103 Perdix drones launched from three F/A-18 Super Hornets. The micro-drones demonstrated advanced swarm behaviours, such as collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying and self-healing.

The Gulf  War in 1990 had brought to light a new dimension in warfare where smart weapon technology and “intelligent” weapon systems were used extensively. These weapons performed effectively against designated targets and reduced human casualty. This stealth and precision of modern warfare is going to define the ‘future of defence’.  And almost three decades later, the laboratories around the world are abuzz with swarming drones, robotics, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Battle Things.

As the Director General of the Society of Indian Defence Manufacturers(SIDM) Lt. Gen.(Retd) Subrata Saha points out, “We are talking about the precision weapon systems here and the emphasis is more on stealth to achieve more with less and your robust ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) mechanism that defines the future of defence technology per se. And that is going to drive the business of defence with the most critical and necessary components that would also have an outreach and application beyond defence.” How ready are we?

According to a report by the International Data Corporation (IDC), the global spending on robotics and related services will more than double by 2020, growing from $91.5 billion in 2016 to more than $188 billion then. Defence will absorb the major chunk of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs,) for accuracy in military operation.  

Not just a few advance militaries, but a cluster of nations are in the race for the drone. The reason is simple. Even though drones do not exactly come cheap, they still cost less than the life of a soldier. Automation has myriad applications in warfare, be it to maneuovre missiles or to reconnaissance over enemy territory with an UAV.  

Military UAVs are getting increasingly sophisticated, outfitted with low-level autonomy that allows the drones to navigate their way through space without human intervention. China has declared research on artificial intelligence (AI) as a national priority and some striking AI capabilities are being integrated in the military with scale and range. The Chinese do realise that the nature of warfare will undergo a fundamental change with unmanned platforms and autonomous systems.
India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has taken a leaf out of China’s book, by taking advantage of the home-grown information technology (IT) industry.  It has set aside Rs 1500 crore for research on UAVs projects for application across the Army, Navy and Air Force. The DRDO plans to spend Rs 18,000 crore in the current fiscal on both existing and futuristic projects. In February the DRDO carried out test flights of its Rustom 2 drone, a medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle at Chalakere in Karnataka’s Chitradurga district. Rustom 2 is being developed on the lines of predator drones of the United States to carry out surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) for the Armed Forces with an endurance of 24 hours.

Future of Defence
The DRDO has of  late come up with noteworthy and startling new-age technologies in its ‘Future of defence’ project. The integration of AI and related technologies are being liberally integrated in the next generation Unmanned Combat Aircraft (UCAV) Ghatak and iSWIFT (Stealth Wing Flying Testbed). Besides, Cyber warfare will assume a far greater importance, and cyber adversaries will have to be tackled with AI.

Internet of Intelligent Battle Things is the emerging reality of warfare. A variety of networked intelligent systems – things – will continue to proliferate on the battlefield, where they will operate with varying degrees of autonomy. Intelligent things will not be a rarity, but ubiquitous on the future battlefield, says Alexander Kott of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory in a widely acclaimed research paper.

Thus, military can have many applications similar to the commercial ones derived from the Internet of Things (IoT). Be it in critical infrastructure, industrial control, or consumer durables, IoT systems are similar in data collection, distribution, feedback and analytical technologies. In a report titled, ‘Internet of Things (IoT) in Aerospace & Defence Market Forecast 2017-2027,’ the global agency, Vg-Defence estimated the global IoT market in the aerospace and defence sectors to be $22.6 billion in 2017.

In the spheres of aerospace and defence, IoT devices connect aircraft, systems and people to the Internet to help improve production processes, management efforts and help enhance productivity. The report projects IoT sales in aerospace and defence for the next ten years, taking into account the businesses of the world’s leading defence contractors, like BAE Systems, Boeing Co., General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman Corp.

At the moment developing military capabilities with  futuristic, next generation technologies seems to be the sole compulsion of the DRDO. A convergence must occur between the military, industry and academia, though, for a  competitive tempo in next generation defence R&D.