By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 26th June 2015
The international maritime boundary line (IMLB) between India and Sri Lanka, frequently violated by fishermen, gun-runners and smugglers, will soon be under tighter watch by the Rustom-1 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) --- a drone developed by the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO).
The DRDO is working with the navy to fit an Automatic Identification System (AIS) on the Rustom-1, to identify Indian fishing vessels along the IMLB. The AIS transmits an “interrogator” signal that reflects back from transponders fitted on every Indian fishing boat.
That would allow the Rustom-1 to identify Indian fishing boats, and to quickly detect those straying into Sri Lankan waters. In such an event, or if it detects an unidentified boat in Indian waters, the UAV alerts a ground control station (GCS) on the Indian coast through a real-time digital data link.
Currently, the Indian Navy monitors this maritime boundary --- running across the Palk Strait and Gulf of Mannar --- with Dornier-228 manned aircraft, and Israeli-built Heron and Searcher UAVs. These operate from INS Parundu, a naval air base near Ramanathapuram District, Tamil Nadu. Since these aircraft do not have AIS systems, they cannot differentiate Indian vessels from Sri Lankan.
Colombo complains that Tamil Nadu fishermen deliberately poach from Sri Lanka’s rich fishing grounds, which are exploited by fewer fishing vessels than India’s crowded waters. Earlier this year, Premier Ranil Wickramasinghe controversially threatened Indian fishermen that they could be shot if they poached on the livelihood of fishermen from Jaffna, Sri Lanka’s northernmost province.
According to figures submitted by the government to the Madras High Court in 2012, the Sri Lankan Navy has fired 167 times on Indian fishing vessels over the preceding two decades, killing 85 and injuring 180 fishermen. Sri Lanka also arrested 746 Indian fishermen, duly releasing all but five.
Tamil Nadu’s fishing community demands the Indian navy and coast guard must protect them from the Sri Lankan Navy.
For that reason, the navy has welcomed the DRDO’s plan to modify the Rustom-1 for this task by fitting it with AIS. The Rustom-1 was never intended to enter service; it was meant to be a “flying test bed” for proving sensors and data links meant for the Rustom-2, which would be operationally deployed as a system much like the successful US Predator drone.
Now, however, the navy has agreed the Rustom-1 could conduct maritime surveillance, after the DRDO enhances it to fly missions of 8-10 hours. “We are replacing the existing data link, which weighs about 14 kilogrammes, with a newer data link that weighs just 4 kilogrammes. We will shave off another 25 kilogrammes from the flying package. That will give us the ‘persistence’ we need, which the means the ability to remain for long over the mission area”, explains a senior DRDO project manager.
The DRDO’s key operational challenge is to transmit data from the UAV all through an 8-hour surveillance mission, during which the Rustom-1 would fly about 1,500 kilometres. The data link with the GCS, however, has a range of just 200 kilometres. Before the Rustom-1 goes out of range from one GCS, it would have to transfer the data link, in mid-flight, to another closer GCS. The DRDO says this challenge has already been met.
What remains unresolved is the task of fitting AIS transponders in the tens of thousands of fishing boats that operate from Tamil Nadu. After the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack, a national coastal security task force had decided to fit AIS transponders on all of India’s two lakh fishing vessels. This has not been done.
“We will take 6-8 months to fit the Rustom with an AIS and make it lighter. Six months more will go in testing the final platform. So the government has about a year to fit all fishing vessels with AIS. Without that, the initiative would serve no purpose”, says the DRDO project manager.
DRDO’s Bangalore-based Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) is leading the Rustom project. The Rustom-1 flying platform is a commercially purchased kit from Rutan. However, the Rustom-2 has been developed from scratch with a Rs 1,540 crore budget sanctioned in February 2011. It is intended to remain on station for up to 24 hours with a payload of over 350 kilogrammes. Private firms, Taneja Aerospace and Trivan Industries are developing the Rustom-2 airframe.