Startup Mantra: Making a mark in drone space - Hindustan Times
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Startup Mantra: Making a mark in drone space

ByNamita Shibad
May 04, 2024 06:22 AM IST

Bhupendra Jagtap shifted from e-commerce to launch Vetaal Defence Pvt Ltd focusing on anti-drone systems due to rising drone threats in modern warfare.

For over ten years, Bhupendra Jagtap was running an e-commerce business fairly well, but the drone trend was something he just could not miss. His love for flying objects made him change tracks when the government opened the doors to startups with the relaxed drone policy in 2021.

After studying drones and counter-drone systems for more than a year, Bhupendra Jagtap launched Vetaal Defence Pvt Ltd in October 2023 (REPRESENTATIVE PHOTO)
After studying drones and counter-drone systems for more than a year, Bhupendra Jagtap launched Vetaal Defence Pvt Ltd in October 2023 (REPRESENTATIVE PHOTO)

After studying drones and counter-drone systems for more than a year, Bhupendra launched Vetaal Defence Pvt Ltd in October 2023.

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The Armed Forces had huge needs and as technology went up the innovation ladder, the war landscape too changed. Says Bhupendra, “In conventional war, you plan your attack and send in men and machines, but with drones that are now completely autonomous. Drones are nothing new, the USA used them in the Iran-Iraq war, and now everyone has seen how the Russia-Ukraine war has moved the game to a new level. The trend is moving towards using small, expendable low-cost drones. While on one side China is undoubtedly a world leader in small drones, on the other Border Security Force (BSF) regularly reports an increasing number of Pakistani drones entering Indian territory.

Studying drone landscape

While Bhupendra was excited about this new venture his rational mind put things in perspective. “Whilst studying the drone landscape I got an insight. Everyone is largely focusing on making ‘attack’ drones and during the war, the enemy can use larger ones with say 500kg of payload. But the real problem is with countering the small drones.”

They are inexpensive, easy to build, hard to detect. Most importantly they are very expensive to shoot down using traditional air defence systems. The pressure on defence is far greater than on offence in drone wars. This is because an unmanned vehicle can plan its time, and place of attack and the defender has to first be able to detect it and then counter it. And the counter options currently are to shoot it down with a missile, high-power laser guns or long-range bullets or use radio frequency (RF) jammers. This cannot be put anywhere and everywhere, whereas a drone can attack just about anywhere it wants.

“I thought, how can a drone attack be dealt with? Fighting it off with missiles, laser guns and large bullets would be quite ineffective and very expensive. So, I decided that Vetaal would focus on a more effective drone interceptor approach,” he said.

Making of drone interceptor

Shifting focus from drone to anti-drone was the most vital decision for Bhupendra. Not only did it differentiate his business it also had huge possibilities. So what did it take for him to build an anti-drone system. “We needed to figure out how to first locate and track attacking drones using onboard sensors, while both these drones were moving,” he said.

“I saw that all options, the anti-aircraft guns, laser gun could be not be deployed everywhere. There is a widely used option RF jamming,” said Bhupendra. Since drones are controlled remotely, jamming the frequency could disconnect it from the controller. But this will work if the pilot is human. Now, with AI, RF jamming has been rendered almost useless. In some cases, the drones can seek out the soldier carrying the jammer and attack him.

The other option is High Power Microwave (HPM) devices which generate an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) the electronic signals capable of disrupting any electronic devices like drones. These systems are under trial in the US, UK and India. But an attack drone can easily counter this by putting EM shields around its electronics. Some other methods are net guns, cyber takeovers, and even using trained pet birds.

“All these anti-drone methods are relatively easy to counter, a sophisticated military attack drone will have all these counter-measures inbuilt. What we were looking for was a versatile method. That left us with the only option of a Hard Kill which is a physical interception of the incoming drone with a drone. We have named our drone interceptor as DroneScrapper,” he said.

Research

Bhupendra studied various drones, their speed, and flying altitude so they could build something faster and fly higher than the attacking drone.

“In this industry, we have a segment called FPV (First Person View) racing drones used by enthusiasts, it’s the F1 car of the drone world. Their speeds can go up to 200kms/hr or even more and are manually controlled via RC remote. We took that as our baseline and made it fully autonomous. This means, our DroneScrapper would not need a ground control station or a remote control. Anyone could use it as we did away with RC pilot training. All a person has to do is, simply throw the drone towards the attacker,” he said.

Sounds simple but will it need expert aiming skills? Says Bhupendra, “Well you don’t have to throw it at the drone exactly but in the approximate direction of that drone. Because our drones have an electro-optical sensor (camera) they will begin searching in that area. The range of the camera is about 20 degrees so if it does not find the attacking drone it will shift its search to the next 20 degrees and so on. Once found, it will chase it and physically hit the attacker. Since drones are fragile, even if one of its propellers is damaged it will come down. We target the propellers as it is the weakest link and all small drones are propeller driven except very few”

Building DroneScrapper

We have already built a kamikaze drone that can hit ground targets autonomously (without user inputs). This drone was a fixed-wing drone (much like the ones he used to build in college).

“It took us six months to get it right – hit a stationary target using onboard optical sensors. This experience helped us a lot in building this DroneScrapper,” he said.

When we started, we began by hitting non-moving targets, the aim was simply to be able to land on target. We are now in the stage of hitting moving targets. We experiment with different things that I cannot disclose now. We have managed to track a moving target and follow it from another moving platform and are working on how to land on it. As one gets closer to a moving target the complexity exponentially.

Investment

So far, we have raised 55 lakh from friends and family. But I am going to need about 8-10 crore. I am looking for investors and talking with a few and also looking at various government schemes that help startups.

Markets

While the Armed Forces will be the primary market Bhupendra envisages wider applications for his anti-drone systems.

“The drone need not necessarily attack, it can just do ISR (Intelligent Surveillance and Reconnaissance) of vital assets like nuclear stations, Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), dams and bridges etc. So, the police forces, or even regular security agencies are our market. Even merchant ships will need it, given the recent attacks on commercial ships. In fact, our markets are not limited to India. We will sell to all friendly countries as allowed by our laws,” he said.

But is the fear of reverse engineering real? “Yes, that is true, irrespective of all protection mechanisms we put in, but isn’t that typical of any defence system? Someone will scratch it up and build it. You just have to keep getting better and better than the enemy.”

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