Neel Mehta, Co-Founder & Director, Asteria Aerospace is responsible for leading product development, focusing on the research of new technologies for making innovative products at Asteria. In an email interview with Raksha Anirveda, Neel Mehta responded to the questionnaire in his concise and eloquent style. Edited Excerpts:
Currently, India accounts for a large chunk of global UAV imports – the bulk meant for military use. It’s expected that India will be the first to embrace the drone revolution and be the world’s third-largest drone marketplace by 2025. With 270 startups and an estimated domestic market size of Rs 3 lac crore, do you think India in next five years will attain self-reliance in UAV manufacturing and emerge as a leading exporter?
NM: The Indian drone market is growing quite rapidly, and currently, the demand is probably more than the local supply. The government is supportive of locally manufactured drones and has backed it up by coming out with a PLI scheme for this sector as well as putting an emphasis on procuring indigenous drones for both defence as well as civilian applications. The number of startups working on drone technology in India has grown by more than 30% over the last 9 months. Once the local manufacturing ecosystem matures, there is a significant scope to export drones outside of the country. Since drones are considered a dual-use item under the Wassenaar agreement of which India is a signatory member, every export of a drone from the country has to be made under an export license. The government is looking at ways to streamline and ease the process of obtaining such a license. Over the next few years, we will certainly see Indian-made drones exported for both military as well as commercial applications.
Asteria Aerospace aims to be the biggest OEM and has been expanding its product portfolio, services and analytics. Your focus has been on all spheres – production and assembling, hardware and software development. Kindly provide a detailed account of your product range and solutions with insights into your future strategy and development roadmap.
NM: Asteria Aerospace is a full-stack drone technology company building customized solutions for government agencies and private sector companies from different industries. We design and manufacture multiple drone platforms ranging from 2 kg to 25 kg all-up weight that are easy-to-use, rugged, and performance driven. The use cases for these drones span from surveillance and security, land surveys, agricultural surveys as well as inspection of critical assets like pipelines, powerlines, and telecom towers.
Asteria also provides end-to-end Drone-as-a-Service solutions supported by our in-house drone operations cloud platform, SkyDeck. SkyDeck helps in seamlessly managing the planning & execution of drone flights, data processing, visualization, and analytics to provide business insights from drone data. We plan to continue investing in R&D and expanding our manufacturing and operations to fulfill the growing demand for drones and drone data in the country.
What factors differentiate Asteria Aerospace from its competitors? Do you think innovation and emerging technologies will be the key drivers in future UAV industry?
NM: Asteria Aerospace is vertically integrated with IP in UAV hardware design, software development and manufacturing. With a complete control on the full technology stack, we can develop highly integrated and customized solutions as per the application requirements. Asteria’s UAVs have flown at altitudes over 6000 meters above sea level in the Himalayas, to the hottest deserts in Rajasthan, while delivering best-in-class performance.
NM: While it wasn’t always the case, it would be fair to say that the process of induction of UAVs in defence and homeland security forces has picked up pace in the last few years. Over the last year, the Indian armed forces have procured swarming UAVs, UAVs for logistic operations as well as UAVs with munition capabilities amongst others. There is a recognition among defence and homeland security forces that the use of UAVs will rewrite military CONOPS in several areas and an intent to get familiarized with the technology as soon as possible. The government is working closely with startups and innovators through iDEX to commercialize and field new technology. The government has also fast-tracked procurement of drone technology under emergency powers when required. These initiatives have helped to induct UAV technologies into the forces at the speed which is needed.
Introduced in 2021, has the Indian government’s production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme helped altering the overall perception towards Indian UAV companies along with positive impact on business by creating a level playing field environment? In what ways the PLI scheme has benefitted Asteria Aerospace?
NM: Asteria Aerospace is honored be shortlisted as a beneficiary under the production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme for drone manufacturing. This year, under the PLI scheme, the government of India has shortlisted 23 drone and drone component manufacturers who will receive due recognition as well as a financial incentive for achieving a certain threshold of production output and local value-added output.
By directly incentivizing local drone and drone component manufacturing, the PLI scheme will strengthen the domestic manufacturing ecosystem, making it competitive in the global market while creating new job opportunities. This scheme is providing a timely boost to this emerging industry and is a progressive step towards the vision of making India a global drone hub.
The use of UAV has evolved and diversified a lot in terms of defence and homeland security applications. From security, surveillance, reconnaissance, border survey, search and rescue operations, UAVs are now being used for combat missions, as target decoys, logistics and more. Thus, the research and development focus in the drone industry has been more on automation, development of manportable UAVs and capability endurance. Tell us about Asteria’s research and development initiatives being undertaken.
NM: Recent conflicts around the world have witnessed an increased and innovative use of UAVs of all forms & sizes. Whether it is for surveillance, logistics, or combat applications, continuous R&D is key to ensuring that drones offer a competitive advantage against the adversary. Drones must be specifically designed to fit the needs of different missions and environments. For instance, surveillance of large areas requires UAVs that can fly higher and can remain in the air for longer durations. While UAVs that are used for target reconnaissance need to be stealthy and agile. Defence products need to be rugged, easy to use, and have a high performance. Asteria’s focus has been on understanding the customer needs and developing innovative solutions to meet them through incorporation of the latest technologies in sensors, communication, propulsion, and materials.