Thirteen years and close to ₹1,800 crore later, the DRDO’s Tapas BH-201 drone project failed to meet the military’s specifications. Now, the effort is to make the drone airworthy with whatever capabilities it has achieved
Amidst criticism over failing to meet the Indian military’s requirement of developing an advanced unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is making efforts to salvage the project on which close to ₹1,800 crore have already been spent in the past 13 years.
The Tapas BH-201, a medium altitude long endurance (MALE) drone, has been under development since February 2011 by the DRDO’s Bangalore-based Aeronautical Development Establishment. Its first test flight was conducted in 2016. But recently, its developers faced disappointment after the armed forces gave up on the project since the drone had failed to achieve the required parameters despite being under development for years.
Tapas BH-201 was closed as a ‘Mission Mode’ project last September. A Mission Mode project of the DRDO is defined as a high-priority, focused and time-bound project to achieve specific operational requirements, with any delays affecting the efficiency of the forces.
The drone’s developers have now been asked to ‘freeze the configuration’—a technical terminology to finalise whatever capabilities a weapons system has achieved so far—for required certification to make it fly worthy, since it is felt that work on a platform cannot continue indefinitely without any deadline for completion.
The DRDO’s Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification, a regulatory body vested with the responsibility of airworthiness certification, has been approached by the developers. Four basic parameters—aerodynamics, controllers, propulsion and structural, will be tested for certification.
“You cannot continue to develop a platform without any timeframe. At some point, the designers have to finalise whatever capabilities or configuration a platform has achieved. Once its configuration is finalised, future course of action can be decided,” said a key defence ministry official, adding that the Indian Navy has shown interest in accepting the Tapas drone for surveillance over the Andamans. However, the navy can go ahead with its plan only when the drone gets an airworthy certificate.
Earlier, realising that Tapas BH-201 is not going to be a ‘reality’, the Indian Army recently inducted four satcom-enabled Heron Mark-II UAVs from Israel. This is in addition to India’s procurement of 31 armed MQ-9B SkyGuardian drones from the United States. While the Indian Navy will get 15 of these high-altitude long endurance drones, manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the Indian Army and Indian Air Force will get eight each. The deal includes 170 AGM-114R Hellfire missiles and 310 laser small diameter bombs, communications and surveillance equipment and a precision glide bomb for use in the MQ-9B drones.
The challenge for the developers of Tapas BH-201 is to get the drone platform certified. So far, Tapas has achieved flying endurance of only around 18 hours at an altitude of 28,000 feet. However, as per norms and the Indian military’s requirements, a MALE remotely-piloted aircraft should be able to achieve at least 30,000 feet within 24 hours of flying.
The Tapas BH-201 project was sanctioned in 2011 at a cost of about ₹1,541 crore with a deadline to complete it in 66 months, by August 2016. The project went through multiple extensions, pushing up the cost to ₹1,786 crore. The plan had been to develop 76 Tapas drones—60 were for the army, 12 for the air force and four for the navy.