Tejas UCAV? Here’s What HAL Needs To Do
The concept of an unmanned Tejas was first publicised in 2008 that a news came in that HAL would derive an unmanned variant of Tejas. In 2008, Then DRDO Chief M Natarajan in an interview to Defence journal had first contemplated the idea of developing unmanned LCA-Tejas which could be adopted to be used as an advanced UCAV (unmanned combat aerial vehicle). Then in March 2017 it was massively reported that a team has already started work on the project to convert the LCA into a drone and India’s premier aircraft manufacturer Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is confident that the project can be carried out within a short time frame.
“We have started an internal study on making a unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) on the Tejasplatform. Besides, we are confident on coming up with an unmanned version of Chetak helicopter as well,” HAL Chief T Suvarna Raju told ET.
Converting a semi stealth 4+ gen. fighter into a UCAV is quite feasible in India where the cruel environment of Himalayas have taken more lives of pilots than enemy fire power. Earlier conversion of a fighter into trainer has been done so that these fighters could be used as a target practice. Here the displays, the life support systems,the ejection seat and various other systems would be replaced by a large antenna that receives satellite navigation based commands. To operate a UCAV beyond line of sight of a ground based antenna, a robust satellite navigation is needed. Earlier only Americans had it so the developed predator drones. With an indigenous satellite navigation a flying high level unmanned bomber would killer.
India is already developing a stealth UCAV named Ghatak, but the load carrying capacity of such UCAVs is quite decent. The Tejas may be a light fighter but if converted into UCAV and judged by that standards Unmanned LCA would be a high capacity one.
The conversion of a full-fledged fighter system into an unmanned platform is an onerous task. Apart from the easier material changes, including removal of non-essential items (actually not a simple task on the Tejas, as maintainability roadblocks have shown), the conversion of the Tejas — like Boeing’s conversion of the F-16 to the QF-16 — will involve major changes to the flight control system (FCS). The conversion will also involve the installation of a kill switch/flight termination system to make sure ground control can destroy the aircraft in flight and the addition of telemetry sensors and systems. But the centrepiece of the conversion will be the Tejas FCS. Because the current FCS is designed keeping in mind the health capabilities of a human pilots and intended to filter out human errors. The FCS would be completely new.
QF-16: Unmanned derivative of F-16. QF-16 will replace the current QF-4 Full scale aerial target fleet and will act as a fourth-generation airborne target representing today’s airborne threats. It will also support the evaluation of fielded air-to-air missile (AAM) capabilities, while offering live missile training for combat air crews.
Economics and survivability issues aside, the research HAL is conducting on the familiar Tejas platform could have deep experimental value going forward. In a best case scenario, it gives HAL fundamental experience in flight control system architecture for unmanned/autonomous systems in combat envelopes — something very far from what it has even thought of attempting so far. Skeptics would argue that HAL has chosen to do the most difficult task first, though others suggest that this is low-risk option for very valuable research and will not require additional resources, especially since this is technology no country will share without very expensive benefits. Of course, if things click, a possible target drone version of the Tejas for air combat training (like the QF-16) is a possibility.
Tejas UCAV could be the techonology demonstrator for future UCAV and bring Indian forward in the market of combat drones, with the capabilities of autonomous takeoff and landing along with the need of zero human assistance to carry out any mission unmanned Tejas can open enormous possibilities of development as well business for India.
HAL is also scouting an international partner to spin off an unmanned version of the Chetak helicopter.