Sunday, 24 February 2019

Part II on small, high-tech companies: Aeron Systems’ technology attracts Kalyani Group interest

The Sarvatra bridge, which uses tilt sensors developed by Aeron

By Ajai Shukla
Bengaluru 
Business Standard, 24th Feb 19

On Friday, the giant, $3 billion Kalyani Group, which is making a determined foray into defence, announced an understanding with Aeron Systems, a small, Pune-based high-technology firm, at Aero India 2019 in Bengaluru.

“Kalyani Group and Aeron Systems, a Pune-based smart technology company, developing indigenous Inertial Navigation Systems (INS) and Internet of Things (IoT) solutions, have come to an understanding to explore investment options into Aeron Systems, with the former coming on board as a strategic investor,” said a Kalyani Group announcement.

However, there was no matching announcement from Aeron Systems.

The decade-old Aeron Systems, with its focus on developing high-tech navigation devices rather than tie-ups, did not even participate in Aero India 2019. Over the preceding year, it has focused on developing fibre optic gyros (FOGs) that form the heart of INS devices. These allow fast moving objects – such as spacecraft, aircraft, missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), aerial bombs or land vehicles – to continually track their own location with an accuracy of just inches.

Aeron’s INS devices are in demand for mine-laying vehicles, unmanned ground vehicles (for bomb disposal), precision guided (PG) kits for rockets and are now being offered for the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) Jaguar and Tejas fighters. The firm has started adapting INS technology for use by global “original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) of autonomous and driverless vehicles, especially agricultural tractors.

Cheap and accurate INS technology is also crucial for the futuristic generation of long haul trucks, which incorporate cruise control and autopilot. “We are being evaluated by global OEMs, but cannot reveal any names just yet,” say Aeron representatives.

Bharat Forge, the Kalyani flagship, which is closely intertwined with the international automotive industry, to which it is a major supplier of forgings and castings, was quick to see the potential synergy with Aeron.

Like so many micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) operating at the cutting edge of technology, Aeron Systems was driven by the ambition of two young engineering graduates. In 2008, after graduating from Pune University, Ashvani Shukla and Abhijit Bokil set up a company that quickly caught the eye of technology czars at the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO). 

Within two years, the DRDO adopted their “digital tilt sensor” for the launcher of the Akash missile. Before long, their tilt sensor was in use in the mobile Sarvatra combat bridge, which is manufactured by Larsen & Toubro. Even now, about 40 tilt sensors are supplied each year for the Sarvatra programme.

Aeron’s core technology, INS, complements and backs up satellite navigation, which allows moving objects to glean their own location using signals from a network of satellites called the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) – a more accurate version of Google Maps.

However, satellite signals can be disrupted by bad weather, or while traversing dense foliage or tunnels or in deep mountain valleys. Signals can be deliberately jammed by the enemy, or spoofed (a false signal created) to divert a missile or UAV from its intended course.

Furthermore, missiles or aircraft that travel 500 meters per second need their location updated 50-100 times each second. GNSS satellite signals are updated only once a second. For that reason, spacecraft, missiles and fighter aircraft navigate primarily with INS, using GNSS as back up. 

An INS system uses multiple data inputs, especially a highly accurate gyroscope, to calculate its position. Its accuracy lies in the sophistication of its data fusion algorithm that fuses all the data into an output that minimises navigation errors.

Aeron intends to launch its own fibre-optic gyro (FOG) by mid-2019, and is working towards the holy grail of a ring laser gyro (RLG). While confident of successfully building one, Shukla says a high quality FOG provides inputs that are practically as accurate as an RLG.

In 2017, Aeron was awarded the Defence Equipment Manufacturers Association (DEMA) Excellence Award for indigenising INS equipment.

“We have obtained international certification for our products, including getting JSS Penta-5 certification, which is equal to Mil Standard 810F”, says Bokil.

“The potential investment from Kalyani Group will provide impetus to the development efforts of Aeron for indigenous tactical and navigation class inertial sensors and INS systems thereof,” said the Kalyani Group release on Friday.

Conscious of the need to buffer against lumpy domestic defence procurement, Aeron has consciously reached out to the export markets. This year, it appointed distributors in the US, France, Spain and Singapore to expand its markets.