Energizing Applied Research In Indian Defense Industries
A scenario is presented where Indian defence industry delivers on critical futuristic technologies purely based on its in-house research activities. Author draws upon the experience to prove that in-house research groups can be self sustaining and commercially viable if its activities are aligned to rapidly address the technological gaps prevailing with Indian defence stakeholders. Onus, however, lies with government agencies to guide industry by sharing its expectations on basic research areas.
Keywords: Futuristic technologies; contract research; in-house R&D; DRDO research boards
MoD currently depends exclusively on DRDO for carrying out the fundamental research in critical defence technologies. For DRDO, however, fundamental research is one of the several mandates; primary being, design and development of state-of-the-art defence equipment. Relentless push by armed forces for new equipment & systems is rapidly changing the nature of activities being pursued within DRDO.
To sustain technology orientation, DRDO laboratories have setup focused technology directorates that support the project groups with critical design, analysis & experimental inputs. But, with increasing number of mission-mode projects, the directorates themselves are getting stretched. Due to tight time schedules, direct application of available tools and facilities gets more importance than development of new advanced tools & methodologies.
Thereby, DRDO has set up multiple mechanisms for furthering research in areas critical to them. Most of the initiatives are targeted towards funding academic institutes such as IITs, IISc & NITs as well as CSIR labs. This has lead to development of a vibrant eco-system through which, the research objectives are being met. It is argued through this article that Indian industries should also be considered while chalking out the road map and initiatives of basic research in defence technologies.
Research as Academic Activity
Procedure of sanctioning research projects to academic institutes is one of the straight forward and most liberal. Commonly known as CARS (Contract for Acquisition of Research Services), it only needs research topic and the interested faculty member to be identified along with a rough breakup of expenditure. Funds are always transferred to institute in advance. It can be used to build facilities and compensate students / research scholars.
Various technology boards such as AR&DB (Aeronautics Research & Development Board), NRB (Naval Research Board) and ARMREB (Armament Research Board) were setup in past that facilitates interaction with academia for execution of defence research projects. As further push, many more initiatives have started. Notable among them are GATET (Multi Centric Gas Turbine Enabling Technology Initiative), NP-MICAV (National Programme for Micro Air Vehicle), Research & Innovation Center, IIT Chennai & Center of Propulsion, IIT Bombay.
But, even after such flexible arrangements, DRDO labs are not able to completely spend the budget allocated under CARS as there are not many takers. Like DRDO, applied research is one of the several mandates with IIT faculty; primary responsibilities being, teaching courses to ever increasing number of students. DRDO funded projects at best help creating much needed quality human resource.
Research as Business Model
Applied research should not be mistaken with “engineering design services” or with activities that are needed for design and development of defence products. Indian industry’s remarkable success with engineering services and product development is visible in DefExpo, AeroIndia and their contribution to DRDO-OFB products. However, their presence is almost nil in defence oriented technical conferences & symposiums like SAROD (Symposium on Applied Aerodynamics and Design of Aerospace Vehicles), NCCM (National Conference on Condition Monitoring), HEMSE (High Energy Materials Conference and Exhibits), ARM (Aerospace and Related Mechanisms), etc. Industry is invited as sponsor and for exhibiting their products, but they are conspicuous by their absence in technical discussions and presentation.
Here, author wishes to highlight the background of his organization, Zeus Numerix Pvt. Ltd. It started as a incubated spin-off from Aerospace Department, IIT Bombay with exclusive focus on modeling and simulation of critical systems. For past 10 years, it has followed a business model that carries out contract research in defence technologies as its sole revenue stream. Research areas are aerodynamics, stealth technologies, dynamics-control, propulsion & aero-structures. Company was started when many of the simulation tools were under sanction for DRDO. Many of the sanctions have been removed under international cooperation agreement. But, many simulation technologies are still under strict export restriction.
It is not uncommon to find niche research firms in advanced countries with vibrant defence eco-system. That, operations of an applied research firm will be commercially sustainable can be gauged by the endless list of research areas lying unattended with DRDO. That, such companies are encouraged and supported by DRDO can also be gauged by the long list of assignments carried out by Zeus Numerix. A brief on some of these projects is at http://www.zeusnumerix.com/portfolio.
Defence Research Topics
It is not very difficult to know the research topics that are of interest to Indian defence agencies. Websites of technology boards (AR&DB, NRB & ARMREB) provide a detailed list:
In addition to above list, MoD has also identified “Critical Defence Technology Areas and Test Facilities for Acquisition by DRDO through Offsets” in Defence Procurement Procedure, 2013. It is available as Annexure VIII to Appendix-D of the DPP document.
Defence Research & Indian Industry
The most difficult part for an Indian company is to become a part of defence research eco-system. AR&DB and ARMREB are not open for private companies. NRB, though, open for proposals from private organization, it has so far not given project to any company. The key hindrance, it is believed, is that these projects are funded and seen as ‘grants’ where funds are paid upfront to the academic institutes. In such a setup, it is obvious that defining a basis for selecting or rejecting a private company becomes a delicate matter. However, the rules can be fine-tuned for private company, whereby, they are paid only upon successful delivery of tangible research output.
If we look at DPP, DRDO is open to acquire ‘critical defence technologies’ from foreign OEMs. Whether, DRDO is able to acquire them, when and at what valuation depends solely on the OEM’s discretion. It gives a feeling that MoD has not set any rigid time lines for acquiring ‘critical technologies’. In such a uncertain scenario, it would make sense to inquire with private Indian companies and seek proposals for indigenous development.
Procedural decisions can be taken by DRDO to include private industry for research projects floated through AR&DB, NRB & ARMREB. It may be useful to segregate the research requirements on the basis of Technology Readiness Level (TRL). Basic technology research (TRL-1 & TRL-2), that are usually open ended, can be exclusively identified for academia. Research proposals with an objective to prove technology feasibility (TRL-3 & TRL-4) can be set aside for industry participation. Important aspect that can differentiate academic proposal vs. industrial proposal will be type of funding. Whereas, academic institutions will continue to get funds upfront as grants, payment to industries should be against successful delivery of tangible research output.
One of the easiest ways to push industry carry out more intensive research is through PDR (Preliminary Design Review) & CDR (Critical Design Review) of development projects awarded by DRDO to industry partners. By making the PDR/CDR approvals more rigorous, DRDO may be able to acquire critical technologies from industry partner. Industry would also benefit as they would be able to seek more value for the development projects on account of research element. It would also set a high technology barrier for competitor when development project transforms into production equipment.
Responsibility of convincing MoD about the commitment on research lies solely with private industry. Rather than sponsoring and exhibiting during technical symposiums, it would be more appropriate to participate as presenter and showcase in-house research work. Our experience is that technical presenter is more effective than a sales executive during technical events.
Presence of in-house R&D groups and niche research firms is sign of a healthy and innovative defence eco-system. These groups can be made self sufficient through contract research executed under commercial terms that creates a win-win scenario for both MoD and industry. It is much needed that procedures are modified so that industry is able to participate and execute research proposals with defence technology boards. Upfront research grants to industry may not be a good approach.