Eyeing a potential $2 billion domestic market, India's state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL), which recently carved out a separate unmanned air systems (UAS) division as part of a comprehensive diversification drive, wants to prepare platforms quickly to meet a raft of current and expected requirements from the armed forces, police and paramilitary.

The Indian navy is on the lookout for medium- and high-altitude/long-endurance (MALE and HALE) UAS. And the Indian army and air force are both eager for more short-range unmanned air systems. For the first time, the coast guard and paramilitary forces here are looking to establish their own UAS squadrons for dedicated operations related to coastal and internal security. The country's intelligence agencies, including the National Technical Research Organization and Research & Analysis Wing also operate UAVs and want to add capabilities, preferably indigenous, or Indian-led.

HAL has conducted a market assessment and is sending a request for expression of interest (EOI) to international aerospace companies seeking the joint development, manufacture and marketing of three UAS types: a fixed-wing MALE variant; a fixed-wing, short-range tactical model; and a mini-UAS for infantry, paramilitary and special forces use. Sources connected to HAL say the manufacturer would be willing to partner in the large-scale modification of existing platforms for Indian requirements. HAL already is teaming with Russia on two current projects: the fifth-generation fighter aircraft and multi-role transport aircraft.

“HAL is expanding its reach to cover new product lines. As the UAS business in India and other countries is expanding, there is a need for collaboration to face the competitive scenario,” the company tells prospective partners in its recently published request. HAL hopes to elicit interest from Northrop Grumman, General Atomics, EADS, Lockheed Martin, Boeing Defense, BAE Systems, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), Saab and Dassault, says a HAL executive familiar with the effort.

Representatives for all the entities contacted said their companies are working on responses. A competitive process will winnow out some contenders before a decision is made, though the HAL executive said Chairman R.K. Tyagi is “keen to expedite the process so work could begin on one of HAL's most exciting ventures.”

The MALE UAS that HAL wants to add to its portfolio needs to be a multi-mission platform for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance; communication and data relay; scientific and meteorological applications, and disaster management. HAL is looking to develop an all-weather, day/night UAS with a takeoff weight of around 2 tons, a length not more than 15 meters (49 ft.) and a wingspan of not more than 30 meters. The platform will need a payload capacity of 500 kg (1,100 lb.), an endurance of 50 hr. and maximum speed of 500 kph.

The short-range tactical UAS would be used for battlefield target acquisition, surveillance and reconnaissance, correction of artillery fire and battle damage assessment. The mini UAS will tackle over-the-hill surveillance, border security, law enforcement and urban operations.

HAL has proposed a six-step selection process, including drafting a business plan, it hopes to complete by March 2014.

“The defense minister is keen that the entire process takes as little time as possible. We realize what developing products from scratch entails, and that is one of the chief reasons we are willing to partner in available systems but lead the effort in modifying them for Indian and international customers through partnerships,” a member of HAL's board of directors said.

To be sure, the Indian aerospace establishment, which is monopolized by state-owned companies such as HAL along with a scattering of laboratories, has several indigenous UAS programs in various stages of development.

For instance, the Aeronautical Development Establishment, a laboratory under the Defense Research and Development Organization, is looking to initiate flight-testing of the MALE UAS Rustom-2 by February 2014. Another UAS—the tactical Nishant from the same lab—is due to enter service with the army this year following a protracted development. The Aeronautical Development Agency, known best as the unit leading the development of India's Tejas light fighter aircraft, is also working on concept studies for a stealth flying-wing strike UAS. And the National Aeronautical Laboratory, a body that works under India's Ministry of Science rather than the defense ministry, is also steeped in developing mini- and micro-UAS.

HAL builds the indigenous Lakshya remotely piloted target drone, and provides maintenance services to India's fleet of Israeli-built tactical surveillance drones. HAL is also developing the Naval Rotary UAV with IAI's Malat Div. for an unmanned Chetak/Alouette-III helicopter. The program has been beset with technological hurdles for at least three years and remains far from operational capability. A separate division of HAL is developing mini engines for UAS and cruise missiles.