In a significant step that will give the Indian armed forces an indigenously designed and developed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), a technological demonstrator (TD) of the Rustom will take to the Hosur skies this month.

Official sources at the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE), the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) laboratory that is spearheading the Rs.1,000-crore Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) Rustom UAV programme, told The Hindu that with the high speed taxi trials of the TD almost over, the inaugural flight “could happen anytime soon.” The taxi trials are being conducted at the airstrip belonging to Taneja Aerospace at Hosur.

The Rustom, which will have capabilities equal to, or even better than contemporary UAVs such as the Israeli Heron (currently in use by the armed forces), is derived from the National Aerospace Laboratories’ Light Canard Research Aircraft (LCRA), an aircraft developed by a team under the leadership of late Professor Rustom B. Damania in the 1980s. The ADE have taken the LCRA airframe and structurally modified it for unmanned flights.

Officials said that the TD, which has the same configuration as that of a full-fledged Rustom UAV, but is smaller in size, will undertake around 10 flights — taxiing, taking off and landing like a conventional aeroplane, the only difference being that there will be no pilot aboard. But being smaller than the full-fledged production standard Rustom, the TD will have an endurance of only 12 to 15 hours, approximately half of what the Rustom is being designed for. The ADE are using the TD as a stepping stone to proving the technologies that will go into the Rustom. The initial flights of the TD are being restricted to an altitude of around 500 metres. All three defence services have shown interest in acquiring the Rustom.

The Rustom programme will also marks a first for the DRDO. Traditionally, the DRDO laboratories develop a product or system, build a prototype, prove it in field trials and then transfer the technology to a production agency.

In the case of the Rustom, the DRDO are moving to a regime of concurrent engineering practices where initial design efforts also take into consideration production issues, with the production agency participating in the development of the system right from the design stage, and concurrently developing the necessary infrastructure and expertise for the product and product support. This approach could become a trendsetter for future DRDO projects.

A DRDO technical evaluation committee is examining the proposals of Tatas, Larsen and Toubro, Godrej and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited-Bharat Electronics Limited (joint bid), one of whom will join the ADE as the production agency cum development partner (PADP). A price negotiating committee, headed by Defence Minister A.K. Antony, is looking into the commercial aspects of the proposals.

Both the PADP and the users (armed forces) will have a financial stake in the Rustom project.

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