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The war machine fights back

delhi Updated: Jun 25, 2010 00:03 IST
Akshai Jain
Akshai Jain
Hindustan Times
DRDO

A green needle-thin laser beam slices through the corridor and flickers gently on a 7mm sheet of metal 50m away. The chatter of the scientists gathered on the third floor of the Laser Science and Technology Centre (Lastec) in New Delhi dies down and the countdown begins. The large boxes that house a prototype ordnance disposal system have come to life, unleashing a 500W beam that drills into the thin sheet, filling the corridor with the acrid smell of burning metal.

A few floors below, Anil Kumar Maini, the director of the lab, swivels his computer screen to reveal what looks like a 3D video game. Figures in combat fatigues surround a house. A vehicle that looks like a cross between a tank and a Humvee drives up, stops about 300m away, and lets loose a laser beam that sets the house on fire. Militants hiding in the house run out, arms in the air.

“We’ve been working on an ordnance disposal system for a while,” says Maini, “but it was only recently, at a conference, that the idea of using the system in low intensity conflicts like Kashmir came up.”

The system, which was intended to destroy mines and munitions from a safe distance, can be adapted to set targets on fire. A 1KW laser, according to Maini, would do the job. “We’ve got the technology,” he says excitedly, “We just got to make it a little more rugged.”

He hopes to have a deployable system in two years.

Optimism has never been in short supply at Lastec, or for that matter at any one of the other 50 labs run by India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).

Neither have money, scientists or ideas.

The gargantuan network of labs spread across the country employs 7,000 scientists and 23,000 technical and support staff. Its budget for 2009-10 was Rs 8,317.27 crore, dwarfing that of any other research establishment in the country.

DRDO’s mandate is to create products and technologies for the Armed Forces. It has interpreted that rather loosely, involving itself in every possible area — from animal husbandry to battle tanks.

But what has been in short supply, according to critics, are deployable products and technologies. They point to a litany of missed deadlines, cost overruns and shoddy output.

In a tacit admission of these failures, DRDO has in recent years shifted its attention to what it says are spin-offs or adaptations of some of its military technologies for civilian use. It’s some of these that have made an impact.

All DRDO labs are now, at the time of submitting proposals, required to list possible applications of their research. Technology created by the Defence Food Research Laboratory (DFRL) to package food for soldiers in high-altitude areas has found its way to MTR Foods Ltd’s range of processed foods. DRDO’s laboratory in Leh has figured a way of preserving seabuckthorn juice, creating the successful ‘Leh Berry’ brand.

DRDO has also made advances in insect control. Its latest product, Attracticide, promises to “lure and kill” the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the carrier of Dengue, with military precision. The technology, DRDO says, has been tried successfully by the New Delhi Municipal Corporation.

With the increasing emphasis on spin-offs, the process of commercialising technologies at DRDO has been formalised. In January, the research agency, along with the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), launched an accelerated technology assessment and commercialisation (Atac) programme.

DRDO’s most significant contributions however have been in medicine. The Defence Research and Development Establishment (DRDE) lab in Gwalior has created an H1N1 detection kit as part of its nuclear, biological, chemical (NBC) programme. The kit costs just Rs 3,000 and can, according to Ravi Gupta, director of public interface, DRDO, analyse a sample in 2-4 hours as opposed to the two days that most other kits need.

Close to Lastec is another lab where much of DRDO’s medical research is taking place. The Institute of Nuclear Medicine and Allied Sciences (Inmas) runs a drug development and evaluation programme. The lab has been able to ‘radio-label’ drugs to study how they are absorbed by the body and to determine which anatomical parts they act on. Co-relating the two is a challenging task but doing so successfully can cut drug development costs significantly. The lab has so far radio-labeled and evaluated 25 drugs, some for pharmaceutical companies.

According to lab head Rajendra Prashad Tripathi, Inmas has also pioneered the use of the molecule 2-deoxyglucose in the treatment of cancer. The technology has been transferred to Dr Reddy’s Laboratory Ltd, and is in advanced clinical trials.

Vikram R. Lele, chief of nuclear medicine at Mumbai’s Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre, is a sceptic however. According to him, the institute has created some important radio-chemicals but has failed to follow up on a number of others.

On May 12, Defence Minister A.K. Antony approved a radical overhaul of DRDO. The recommendations include the disbanding of the food and life sciences lab to allow for a greater focus on critical weapons and military technologies. It will be the end of most of DRDO’s spin-offs, but that does not perturb Maini.

His lab is unlikely to come up with the ordnance disposal system or adapt it for use in low-intensity conflicts anytime soon. But “we’re also working on a vehicle-mounted, low-powered but broad laser that can temporarily dazzle and disorient groups of people,” says Maini. “It can be used to control mobs and unruly crowds.”

If DRDO can manage to put a working model out on the street, Maini will have something to show for all that time and money.

More on the web. Every Friday, this series chronicles technological innovation and India’s rise as a global R&D hub. Read previous stories at www.hindustantimes.com/innovation