Indian space, defence start-ups at the cutting edge of innovation

Indian space, defence start-ups at the cutting edge of innovation
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh addresses the gathering at ‘Start-Up Manthan 2021’ during Aero India 2021 in Bengaluru. Several startups raising funds from VCs and showcasing technology demonstrators could become the next big things in space and defence sectors. Courtesy: ANI

With the Narendra Modi government encouraging start-ups in the space, defence (and several other) sectors, and young Indians responding with new technological breakthroughs, the goal of becoming Atma Nirbhar (self-reliance) is that much closer to realisation.

Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcement last May opening up the space and defence sectors, among others, to private participation has come as a boon to India’s booming startup eco-system.

Apart from the large, established industrial giants that have come forward to enter these virgin fields, several start-ups such as Bellatrix Aerospace, Pixxel, Vesta Space Technologies and Agnikul Cosmos, Tonbo Imaging and VizExperts, among dozens of others, are raising funds from venture capitalists and showcasing technology demonstrators, many of which could become the next big things in these two tech-heavy sectors.

Self-reliance critical for strategic autonomy

“Attaining self-reliance in defence manufacturing is a crucial factor for maintaining India’s strategic autonomy. The iDEX (Innovations for Defence Excellence) initiative stands out as one of the most effective and well-executed defence start-up ecosystems created in our country,” Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said at a function recently.

In a similar vein, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) Chairman K. Sivan said on another occasion: “We encourage new players… to explore disruptive technologies and break away from the conventional methods of manufacturing launch vehicles.”

‘Attaining self-reliance in defence manufacturing is a crucial factor for maintaining India’s strategic autonomy,’ said Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh.

Investors are flocking in

Many investors are convinced that the time is ripe for start-ups to bloom in these two nascent sectors. Indian and foreign venture funds such as StartupXCeed, Blume Ventures, Next Capital LLC and Inflexor Ventures as well as some government-backed capital providers have invested in Indian space and defence start-ups.

But the ticket sizes remain small. For example, Blume Ventures, Lightspeed and growX invested $5 million in Pixxel last year to back its plans to launch its first and second satellites. Then, the IIT Madras and Anand Mahindra-backed Agnikul, which test fired the world’s first 3D printed rocket engine recently, had received $3 million in funding from pi Ventures.

Many investors are convinced that the time is ripe for start-ups to bloom in the space and defence sectors. Many Indian and foreign VC funds have already invested in these sectors.

Cutting edge of space technology

This has placed Agnikul, a fledgling Indian start-up, at the cutting edge of the space technology domain. Christened Agnilet, the semi-cryogenic rocket engine will be used in the second stage of Agniban, the company’s launch vehicle that can carry 100 kg payloads to low earth orbits by the end of next year. Importantly, the engine can be fabricated and turned around in only four days.

This places it ahead of even Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has succeeded in 3D printing only parts of but not the entire rocket engine so far despite many more years of research and much greater volumes of funding.

Dropping satellites at designated spots

Bellatrix Aerospace, another start-up in the space sector, is developing what it calls a “taxi in space” to ferry small satellites into a variety of orbits on the Vikram rocket developed by Skyroot Aerospace, another start-up.

Taking a leaf out of the books of tech-based cab aggregators Uber and Ola, Bellatrix will offer ride sharing and “drop” each small satellite to its targeted position in space.

Yashas Karanam, a co-founder of Bellatrix, told ET, a leading Indian financial daily, that his company has built electric and chemical-powered thrusters to place satellites in space.

Like Agnikul Bellatrix is also a path finder in the space sector; it is only the second company in the world to build an orbital transfer vehicle (OTV).

These are just a few examples of innovative technologies being developed by the more than 50 start-ups that have come up in the space sector since it was opened for private participation. These companies offer or plan to offer services to both domestic and international customers.

General MM Naravane COAS at the Bhaskaracharya National Institute for Space Applications and Geo-informatics BISAG-N. Fledgling start-ups with shoestring funding are exploiting India’s frugal engineering capabilities to venture into areas such as stealth technology, underwater swarm drones, smart loitering munitions and pseudo satellites.
General MM Naravane COAS at the Bhaskaracharya National Institute for Space Applications and Geo-informatics BISAG-N. Fledgling start-ups with shoestring funding are exploiting India’s frugal engineering capabilities to venture into areas such as stealth technology, underwater swarm drones, smart loitering munitions and pseudo satellites.Courtesy: ANI

Defence start-ups join the party

This story of innovation and technological advancement is being replicated in the defence sector as well. Fledgling start-ups with shoestring funding are exploiting India’s frugal engineering capabilities to venture into areas such as stealth technology, underwater swarm drones, smart loitering munitions and pseudo satellites.

Often founded by young engineering students or fresh graduates, many of these start-ups are already making heads turn.

“Attaining self-reliance in defence manufacturing is a crucial factor for maintaining India’s strategic autonomy. The iDEX (Innovations for Defence Excellence) initiative stands out as one of the most effective and well-executed defence start-up ecosystems created in our country.”

Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh

From blind to ‘smart’

For example, at the recently concluded Aero India show, a homegrown start-up Tonbo Imaging vied for pride of place along with the Light Combat Aircraft Tejas, the French Rafale fighter jets and a host of the world’s most sophisticated weapons platforms from the likes of Boeing and other MNC arms manufacturers.

Tonbo’s product: See-through armour for infantry combat vehicles. These Russian-origin vehicles, manufactured under license in India, have a major blind spot: They can’t “see” in the dark and are practically useless after sunset and in theatres with heavy smoke or dust.

“We have now come up with a solution under which nine cameras are installed on the vehicle. These cameras are integrated with a helmet display… When the commander turns right, the headgear displays images of the surroundings on to the insides of the tank as if he were looking through the armour,” Ankit Kumar, Managing Director of the company told the media.

This enables the vehicle to make real time manoeuvres in the middle of a battlefield even at night, using an integrated GPS system for precise location tracking.

Indian Air Force and French Air and Space Force participated in Ex Desert Knight 2021 at Air Force Station in Jodhpur. The role of start-ups in India’s space and defence sectors is being seen as crucial.
Indian Air Force and French Air and Space Force participated in Ex Desert Knight 2021 at Air Force Station in Jodhpur. The role of start-ups in India’s space and defence sectors is being seen as crucial. Courtesy: ANI

Foreign interest in Indian defence

Apart from the Indian army, several foreign countries are also believed to have shown an interest in this system, which can, effectively, convert regular armoured vehicles into “smart” ones.

But to fully leverage on the entrepreneurial spirit and technological knowledge of young Indians, the government still has to remove a few hurdles that still discourage all but the most intrepid of innovators.

Surmounting the challenges

The first is transparent procurement norms. Despite massive improvements brought about in the procurement process by the Modi government, there is still far too much red tape that ties up defence purchases in knots. Reasonable timelines must be fixed for acquisition of new systems.

These procedures need to change. Deep pocketed global and Indian investors will be wary of investing big bucks in this sector that holds much promise. And without large investments from private players, these start-ups will not be able to scale up to global standards.

India’s major advantage: Indian firms typically spend only a tiny fraction of what it costs to put build launch vehicles, satellites and other space and defence-related equipment.

India’s advantages

However, India also has many advantages that few other countries can match. Indian companies typically spend only a tiny fraction of what it costs to put build launch vehicles, satellites and other space and defence-related equipment.

Then, India’s pool of technological talent is the envy of the world. This is being harnessed by the private sector for innovations in these two sectors for the first time.

If these can be harnessed properly, the goal of Atma Nirbhar Bharat (Self-Reliant India) can be achieved within the foreseeable future.

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