Indigenous stealth drone makes maiden flight from test range in Karnataka

The stealth drone, also referred to as an Unmanned Combat Airborne Vehicle (UCAV), has been designed and developed by the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE), Bengaluru

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Ajai Shukla  | 
New Delhi 

The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) successfully conducted the maiden flight of its “Autonomous Flying Wing Technology Demonstrator” from the Aeronautical Test Range, Chitradurga, Karnataka on Friday.

“Operating in a fully autonomous mode, the aircraft exhibited a perfect flight, including take-off, way point navigation and a smooth touchdown,” the DRDO announced in a press release.

The aircraft is powered by a small turbofan engine. The airframe, undercarriage and entire flight control and avionics systems used for the aircraft were developed indigenously,” stated the DRDO.

“This flight marks a major milestone in terms of proving critical technologies towards the development of future unmanned aircraft and is a significant step towards self-reliance in such strategic defence technologies,” the DRDO added.

The stealth drone, also referred to as an Unmanned Combat Airborne Vehicle (UCAV), has been designed and developed by the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE), Bengaluru, one of the DRDO’s premier avionics research laboratories.

The UCAV is a precursor to the Ghatak armed stealth drone programme called the Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft, or AURA. The ADE has described the AURA as a self-defending, high-speed, reconnaissance UAV with a weapons firing capability.

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This secretive weapon system came to public notice in 2010, when the DRDO acknowledged the existence of the “Indian Unmanned Strike Aircraft” (IUSA), a drone built of lightweight composite materials and capable of delivering laser-guided strike weapons.

It has been decided that the Kaveri engine, developed by the DRDO’s Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) would power the AURA. The Kaveri was developed for powering the Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA), but has not been able to develop the power needed for a supersonic fighter aircraft.

In 2012, in a written reply to a question in Parliament, the then Defence Minister AK Antony had stated: “Kaveri spin-off engine can be used as a propulsion system for Indian Unmanned Strike Air Vehicle (USAV).”

Antony revealed to Parliament that the unmanned aircraft project had been sanctioned in March 1989 at an estimated cost of Rs 383 crore and was to be completed by December 1996. With technological difficulties dogging the project, the completion date was extended to December 2009 and the financial allocation was enhanced to Rs 2,839 crore.

Stealth aircraft have tended to adopt the design referred to as a “flying wing”. This is a tailless, fixed-wing design that has no fuselage. Its crew, payload, fuel, and equipment are housed inside the main wing structure. It works by balancing its airflow and centre of gravity so that no tail is needed.

One of the most famous aircraft with a “flying wing” design is the US Air Force’s legendary B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, which is earmarked for delivering nuclear weapons from the air.

Another successful unmanned, stealth design is that of Lockheed Martin’s RQ-170 Sentinel unmanned drone, which earned the sobriquet of the “Beast of Kandahar” after being deployed to Afghanistan. Another design that is moving towards completion is the European NeuroN, the development of which is led by Dassault.

While non-stealth armed drones, such as the US-built Reaper and Predator, have taken a heavy toll of terrorist lives, the Indian Air Force will necessarily require stealth drones, such as the UCAV, to survive in highly contested air environments, such as over Pakistan.

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Ajai Shukla