The Battalion of Warriors | Rustom Series
-Sunith Sunil Mani
Rustom means ‘Warrior’ in English. A very apt name for the Medium-Long Endurance unmanned aerial vehicle being developed by the Aeronautical Development Establishment of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) of India. The rationale behind the development of the Rustom is to replace the ageing Heron UAVs currently in service with the Indian Armed Forces.
The first variant of the Rustom is the Rustom-1, which was used for prototype flight testing. The Rustom 1’s design is based on the Light Canard Research Aircraft (LRCA) developed by the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) in the 1980s. The LRCA was developed under the leadership of late Prof. Rustom Damania, which is also the reason that DRDO decided to name the Rustom after him.
The production phase of the Rustom series proves to be an interesting change in the production method undertaken by DRDO. The traditional way of development, which was used for the Rustom 1 prototype, involved laboratories under DRDO developing and finalizing the design before transferring the orders to a production agency. The new production method, which was commenced from the Rustom-MALE, follows a pattern of concurrent engineering, whereby production agencies are also involved in the development and finalizing of the design so that any production issues that may arise during the production phase. This new method will allow DRDO to minimise time delays in crucial projects due to production issues.
Rustom-1 which was the initial prototype based on the Light Canard Research Aircraft undertook its commencement flight on November 16, 2009, at Tanoja Aerospace Airfield. The specifications of Rustom-1 are as follows.
- Capacity: 95 kg (209 lb)
- Length: 5.12 m (16 ft 10 in) for Rustom-1
- Wingspan: 7.9 m (25 ft 11 in)
- Height: 2.4 m (7 ft 10 in)
- Empty weight: 720 kg (1,587 lb) for Rustom-1
- Powerplant: Lycoming O-320 engines Four-cylinder air-cooled horizontally opposed engine
- Maximum speed: 150 km/h (93 mph, 81 knots)
- Cruise speed: 170 km/h ( 90 kn)
- Ferry range: 250 km (155 mi, 135 nmi) for Rustom-H
- Endurance: 12-15 hours
- Service ceiling: 7,900 m (26,000 ft)
- Line of sight: 250 km (160 mi)
Unfortunately, the maiden flight of the Rustom-1 ended in a mishap, with the prototype crashing to the ground. Reports from DRDO mentioned that the taxiing and takeoff had taken place exactly as planned but a small misjudgment of the altitude of the flight caused the onboard engine to be switched off through ground command resulting in the onboard thrust dropping to 0. Despite the misfortune, DRDO saw the silver lining and saw to it that the flight proved the functioning of the majority of the onboard systems such as aerodynamics, redundant flight control, engine and datalink. This can be considered a crucial first step in the development of a UAV that is as complex as the Rustom is destined to be.
Rectifying the causes for the mishaps, Rustom-1 had a second maiden flight on the 15th of October 2010. In this test flight, the UAV flew for 30 minutes at an altitude of 910 m (3,000 ft). This successful flight impressed the Indian army and they decided to use it as a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV. Subsequently, Rustom-1 completed its 8th successful flight on 8 Dec 2011. The highlight of this flight was that Rustom-1 was test flown with the ‘gimbal payload assembly carrying daylight TV & Infra-Red camera for the first time. Good quality pictures were received from the camera in the gimbal payload assembly.
After Rustom-1 was the Rustom-H, which was built on a completely different design. It was built as a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). The motivation behind this development was that the Indian army, after seeing the Rusom-1’s capabilities, requested for DRDO to develop a system that could be used as a MALE UAV. This new design brought along a twin-prop engine, providing the Rustom-H with a higher service ceiling and flight endurance period of over 24 hours.
- Capacity: 350 kg (770 lb)
- Length: 9.5 m (31.2 ft) for Rustom-H
- Wingspan: 20.6 m (67.6 ft)
- Empty weight: 1,800 kg (4,000 lb)
- Powerplant: 2 × NPO-Saturn 36MT engines wing-mounted turboprop, 73.55 kW (100 hp)
- Maximum speed: 225 km/h (140 mph)
- Cruise speed: 125–175 km/h (78–109 mph, 67–94 kn)
- Ferry range: 1,000 km (620 mi, 540 nmi)
- Endurance: >24 hr (Rustom 2)
- Service ceiling: 10,668 m (35,000 ft)
- Line of sight: 250 km (160 mi)
- Relay Communication: 350 km (220 mi)
As can be seen from the above statistics, the Rutsom-H has a much larger capacity for payloads, larger wingspan, and sports an overall larger statute as compared to the Rustom-1. The larger capacity allows it to carry necessary communication and reconnaissance equipment such as the Gimbal-mounted Electro-Optical (EO) Sensor Payload which allows it to communicate to operators via onboard Satellite Communication (SATCOM) system.
The Rustom 2 was built primarily around the same general structure as the Rustom-H. As can be seen from the images below, the Rustom-2 heavily resembles the design of the Rustom-H.
The Rustom-2 has since been renamed to Tactical Airborne Platform for Aerial Surveillance-Beyond Horizon-201 or TAPAS BH-201. Like Rustom-H, it is also a MALE UAV. What makes the TAPAS BH-201 more advanced over the Rustom-H is its equipment and onboard configurations, which consists of enhanced aerodynamic configuration, digital flight control, navigation system, communication intelligence, medium and long-range electro-optic payloads and synthetic aperture radar, which gives it the ability to see through dense cloud cover. In comparison to the Rustom-H, which mainly flew with EO payloads, the TAPAS BH-201 is capable of carrying different combinations of payloads depending on mission requirements, including electronic intelligence systems and situational awareness systems. It has a satellite communication link to relay updates in the battle theatre back to base on a real-time basis with minimised delay, providing commanders to have much more accurate feed of the situation in the field and giving them the chance to make more accurate decisions.
Currently undergoing multiple levels of R&D, the TAPAS BH-201 is being developed as a long-endurance surveillance platform capable of deploying precision weapons in future. It is powered by twin NPO-Saturn 36MT turboprop engines and it is predicted to have the capability to carry out intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) roles for all three armed forces branches in India. Once inducted, this indigenous medium altitude long endurance (MALE) multirole drone is likely to be an asset for Indian armed forces for its surveillance capability as well as for its use as an unmanned armed combat vehicle.
- Capacity: 350 kg (772 lb) payload
- Length: 9.5m (31 ft 2 in)
- Wingspan: 20.6 m (67 ft 7 in)
- Empty weight: 1,800 kg (3,968 lb)
- 2 × NPO-Saturn 36MT engines wing-mounted turboprop, 73.55 kW (98.63 hp) each (Prototype)
- 2 × CVRDE indigenous , 130 kW (180 hp) each (Production)
- Propellers: 3-bladed constant-speed propeller
- Maximum speed: 225 km/h (140 mph, 121 kn)
- Cruise speed: 125–175 km/h (78–109 mph, 67–94 kn)
- Ferry range: 1,000 km (620 mi, 540 nmi)
- Endurance: 30 hours
- Service ceiling: 8,229.6 m (27,000 ft)
The TAPAS BH-20’s heavily improved technological functions mean that it is capable of loitering autonomously at high altitudes performing real-time, high-resolution intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) with its synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and electro-optical (EO) sensors. When a potential target is identified, it will either illuminate the target with a laser designator for other strike aircraft or descend to lower altitude and attack the target with its own air-to-surface missiles. The key advantage of this is that it can not only serve as a support platform for strike aircraft teams in the sky but it can also provide the necessary support for ground troops as well. Its advanced communication and inter-networking linkage allows the Rustom-2 to potentially be used as an accompanying system for fighter and strike aircraft of the Indian Air Force. It can help to identify targets and relay them either to operators on the ground who will give the fighter pilots the green light, or it can relay target locations directly to the fighter aircraft, minimising any delay in engaging the target.
At the same time, this ISR platform is also advantageous to ground troops of the Indian Army, who use this as a type of forward-observations platform to identify and neutralise any heavy threats before commencing a full-frontal raid or operation. This can especially be advantageous in the combat regions of Kashmir and Ladakh where counter-insurgency units can use the platform to identify and obtain a clearer image of the raid target while deciding whether to use the Rustom to weaken the target before sending in soldiers on foot. In addition to improving the efficiency of operations, this could also help to reduce the lives lost in such operations.
One key feature which puts the TAPAS BH-201 on par with some of the best ISR platforms in the world is its ability to take off and land autonomously where a runway is provided. Such features have only been seen in some of the most advanced drones in the world, such as the MQ-9 Reaper used by the U.S. Air Force. The significance of such platforms is so that reduced manpower is required for the operating of the drone. In areas where there is a shortage of sufficient aircrew, the drone can still be launched due to its advanced Artificial Intelligence capabilities. This also provides an advantage when there is a need for rapid deployment of such drones, since not all forward airfields may have aircrew personnel that are qualified to launch similar ISR platforms.
China has seen a commendable leap in terms of drone technology, going so far as to export large weapon-capable UAVs to 13 countries and even providing Wing Loong II armed drones to Pakistan to help them protect the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Gwadar port. The hard push to achieve rapid production and deployment of the Rustom-2 seems to be a necessary move in the aim to indigenously produce cutting-edge military equipment in India itself, without the need for imports and high maintenance costs of foreign platforms. China continues to be a source of concern for India as China’s growing influence in Pakistan with the CPEC project, might be a stepping stone for the Abassi-led government to start a drone programme with China’s help, especially considering the already present murmurs within the Pakistan government over India’s successful testing of Rustom-2 drone.
China has not only caught the eyes of Pakistan but about 10 other nations including Saudi Arabia and Iraq have also shown interest in the Chinese-made CH-5 Rainbow military drones. China started commercial production of the Rainbow drones in July last year and claims that it is better than the US-made MQ9 Reaper drones. Whether that is true or not, one thing is for sure; the CH-5 drone is available at half the cost of the MQ9 Reaper drones, which poses another concern for India, which is focused on increasing their arsenal of Reaper drones to supplement the up and coming Rustom series.
Another platform that has proven to be a potential competitor to the Rustom-2 is the Turkish made Bayraktar TB2 Tactical UAV. Like the Rustom-2 the Bayraktat is also a medium altitude and long-range (MALE) tactical unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) system manufactured by Baykar Makina, for the Turkish Armed Forces. Unlike the Rustom, the Bayraktar has already achieved the milestone of 200,000 operational flight hours in June 2020, becoming the first domestically built aerial vehicle in the country to reach the feat. Having already had a significantly reliable service term with the Turkish Armed Forces, the Bayrakar makes the Rustom feel like the new kid on the block. Even comparing, the systems, the capabilities of the Bayraktar resemble that of the Rustom, with a service ceiling of 27000ft and a range of around 150km. It also boasts similar avionics and equipment as the Rustom-2.
In overview, although India appears to be behind some nations in terms of its application of conventional drone technologies, there is substantial evidence from the development of the Rustom that picture an ocean of opportunities present for India, allowing the nation to accelerate to quickly overtake other nations in innovation and applications of the drones.
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