India Aerospace: The Future

I am indeed grateful to AESI, the office bearers and others who have given me this unique opportunity to deliver Bharat Ratna Dr.APJ Abdul Kalam Memorial Lecture. I am particularly touched because of his name for the lecture. Another reason is that it is at Thiruvananthapuram, where from 1965 our friendship started as initial seed and sapling to grow into a wonderful tree later. I myself was shaped in my professional career by Space Science & Technology Centre (SSTC) at Thiruvananthapuram, to which I was appointed by Dr. Vikram Sarabhai – it was in the PRL-SSTC account; I worked from Ahmedabad but travelling often to Thiruvananthapuram. There are many other personal items such as Thiruvananthapuram being my mother’s birth place, our son’s birth place etc. I skip all of them.

Decades have passed since then. There is a good level of achievement in the area of Space Technology: launch vehicles, satellites and various applications. There is a substantial level of indigenization in these fields. The system design and execution have been, since the beginning, fully indigenous.

There are many persons who were and are responsible for these achievements, making India proud, and setting good example for Make in India. Of these many persons, I am choosing two persons about whom I will recall some memories since this event is both Aero and Space. That memory is not for just nostalgia nor is it for filling up a talk with some anecdotes. It is for drawing some lessons especially for Aero part and its future.

While mentioning about some items related to those persons for Aero Part, I am not fully following an ancient dictum: “Satyam Bhruyaat; Priyam bhruyaat; na bruyaat satyam apriyam. (Tell truth; Tell pleasantly; Don’t tell unpleasant truths!) I am rejecting the third part. I derive strength from Tulsi Das: “ Mantri Guru aru Vaidya piya bolahi bhay aas/ Raja, Dharam aru Tan teenahi beygahi naas”

Adviser to king, guru and physician tell pleasant things out of fear or in the hope (of rewards); (Then) King, Dharma and Body all three get destroyed speedily!” So I seek your apologies, if some of it is hurtful. I say it with the full desire, in fact passion, for a bright future of India aerospace with Aero part equally making India proud; serving Indian people in a major way. I have derived that vision and passion from the two persons I have selected.

They are: Prof. Satish Dhawan (SD) and Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (Kalam). I need not introduce these persons to this audience. Even when Kalam was working at TERLS, Thumba, as Rocket Engineer, at Vikram Sarabai’s instance, he started working also on RATO (Rocket assisted take off). After some time, it was not pursued by the user. Kalam’s involvement in aircraft related work was to come much later though it was in his mind. But launch vehicle and missile dominated his mind during 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, though he worked with aircraft industry-HAL. Thank God, he was with ISRO which gave him the ambience and ecosystem to pursue the space part thanks to SD who took over as Chairman ISRO & Secretary Department of Space since 1972. Even in this position SD’s heart was full of aircraft also though he did not have any direct responsibility for it except in a limited way as Director Indian Institute of Science (IISc). Even here, his attempt to nurture an ace pilot and academic Dr Rustom Damania (RD) in the aeronautics department was a failure, due to rigid norms of IISc in promotion- -with emphasis on papers only. So he moved RD to NAL (National Aeronautics Lab- then called). It was only a limited success with RD flying a small aircraft from Bangalore Delhi. I won’t dwell on it. Be it for Avro for which SD led a detailed review, a classic report in those days or for other items, he was striving to create a system and projects for aircraft development, design& production in India – be it a trainer or small aircraft. It was Track-2 effort for him. He would try to influence HAL through some responsive Chairmen & Raj Mahindra, and also enthusing NAL Director & scientists.

India continued to have total turn-key projects and licensing for aircraft production. He used to share with me some of his frustrations in creating an indigenous aircraft industry for industry in India even with a small product. During are such discussions, I mentioned to him (it was during a flight from Delhi to Bangalore, when we were sitting side by side): “Sir may I tell you as to why aeronautics design development and indigenous production is not taking place in India?” Seeing his expression I continued: “ Sir in the field of aeronautics, we have doyens of internationally reputed researchers like you, Drs. Valluri Raj Mahindra, Narasimha etc- So many. Research and scientific papers are the top most priority for them and their colleagues.

“But ISRO was fortunate that it does not have any such persons. They have to prove themselves by doing things, making them in India and producing them in India. So ISRO is project /product oriented!” I stopped there. He was silent and looked at me sharply and perhaps fondly! He appeared to agree with me without telling me. My impertinence to a great academician was tolerated and accepted! But SD for ISRO was a great Systems Manager, and Program Manager who focused and channelized ISRO towards doing concrete products with global standards in mind. He also concentrated on the applications of launch vehicles and satellites. Without end applications, they were irrelevant for him.

Kalam, who openly acknowledged SD as his guru carried those essentials with him while doing SLV-3 and later in missile programme. SD used to tell me in the context of his vision for large scale commercialization of space technology: “It is difficult to develop a space Industry ab initio in a country where there is no established aircraft Industry”. He clearly understood the linkage of aircraft industry and space technology products. But ISRO had to do it mostly alone with some limited assistance of HAL which was obtained after a great deal of persuasion since 1974; I was a direct partly to such struggles! I am glad at least that much of linkage between HAL & ISRO existed from then and also with a number of forward thinking Indian manufacturing private sector industries.

Those linkages were effectively used by Kalam for his missile programme. Kalam inherited a direct mantle for driving Aero part as well when he become Secretary DDRD, SA to RM & DRDO chief, through LCA Programme. By then LCA/ADA had already completed close to decade with limited progress. In the meanwhile TIFAC (Technology Information Forecasting & Assessment Council) for which I was Executive Director/CEO (Kalam being Chairman of Governing Council) had come up with an excellent forecasting and assessment report about the Civil Aviation Sector in India. It was driven by Satish Chandra of NAL who had returned to India from UK after a good stint in BAE and had joined NAL. The study had the benefit of inputs from many global stake holders as well.

Instead of just producing a report as to how an Indian made aircraft would look like, or about an Indian indigenous aviation sector, the report analyzed the global status and trends. It had done a factual assessment of how India stood in the context of global achievements thus far and how the trends were. This was around the years 1992/1993. The sad fact was that Indian aircraft sector in terms of indigenous development was below even Brazil & China. Even smaller European countries like Spain had global leadership in niche component assembly areas.

Most of the Indian capabilities, be it in manufacturing or simulators for training pilots, were in isolated places without a vision to expand to meet the emerging global needs. HAL was mostly tied up to Indian Air force and had little plans to utilize its excellent hard and soft infrastructure to meet emerging domestic and global needs.

After assessing all these, the report recommended about 30 items in which India can become a global player, though having a full indigenous aircraft was not the top priority due to the then existing Indian capability. Kalam & Narasimha presented the findings to the Civil Aviation ministry requesting them for support action of having “offset manufacturing” when India buys civilian aircraft. This was also a part of the plan in the report. After lots of efforts, typical was the reply from the ministry: “Now the economy has been liberalized. It is left to the market forces. The Boards of Air India & Indian Airlines would have to decide on such matters!” No country in the world had built up its Aerospace or Aeronautics Industry this way!

I don’t want to narrate further. On one side we had such ministries/Departments which had no vision on or desire for indigenous development. On the other end we had scientists & academicians who loved their research papers. DRDO was caught in between; itself not clear about a road map to master aviation technology in the country, when decades had passed since 1942 when India established its first aircraft maintenance Industry years before starting automobile industry. I don’t want to say anything about what CSIR/NAL did! We are thus confronted with many missed opportunities. To simply go around them or to try to resurrect some of those past skeletons is not the way to go forward. What is lost is lost! What is ahead of us and what can be done to make a reasonable indigenous base, is what we need to think of, now.


Some crucial developments for Aerospace Industry in India during the past decade or so present us with opportunities for the new situation. Let me try to list them.

  1. Huge growth of aviation service providers; they depend on foreign procured aircraft and associated equipment. But they are able to provide globally competitive air travel domestic/foreign.
  2. There are now a number of excellent airports in India though most of them are built with imported design and products.
  3. ISRO’s space programme has achieved global standards though it needs to expand its capacity (scale of production) to become globally competitive
  4. Down-stream industries related to aviation and space applications have expanded tremendously though many of them are dependent on imports (There is a large scope to increase the Make in India, Design in India, concepts)
  5. Government of India has for the first time recognized the importance of aviation sector in the economy of smaller town/villages and is driving the regional connectivity though UDAAN – Indian aviation is not going to be only metro-and-big city centric.
  6. Culture of START UP is picking up and Indian entrepreneurs are not afraid of entering into aerospace sector though there are several policy uncertainties.
  7. Because of the requirements of Make in India, several foreign big aerospace companies are setting up their joint ventures in India as well as R&D Centres. Some major Indian private players are pro-active in setting up such aerospace companies.
  8. UAV’s are opening up entirely new market segments: even agriculture can benefit greatly by judicious use of UAV’s
  9. Position location systems and geospatial applications are becoming ubiquitous from ordinary transport to personal use. Though these are closely linked to space and communication technologies, they affect aircraft and aviation sectors in a major way. There will be demands of the consumers to provide such services even while travelling in an aircraft or in air ports. UAV’s may need these systems. Many passengers will no longer be comfortable with communication-switch-off-mode!
  10. With increased aviation traffic and large scale use of UAV even by school and college students, accident risks increase. Also there are vital internal security concerns. In the current phase of human society (India not excluded) it is no longer possible to use the license- permit-quota- inspector-raj techniques of denial to consumers. (In 1950’s Indians had to have a license to have simple radio receivers at home. Even as late as 1979 ISRO could not use a neck microphone based system for a four language translation required for a prestigious international conference of COSPAR held for the first time in India, at Ashoka hotel in Bangalore; there was no security clearance from Govt. ISRO was forced to wire up the entire hall to reach individual seats!) Solutions for tracking and control for security purposes or accident avoidance have to be based on sophisticated electronics systems and simulated models.
  11. Aerospace manufacturing technologies may have a large scale impact from disruptive technologies of such as additive layer manufacturing or 3D manufacturing, which have entered commercially in Aero Space Sector already.
  12. The omnibus word AI which is popular now would also have an impact on AeroSpace Industry from relatively simple versions of automated manufacturing, robotics to various advanced simulations during design, for crew training or for risk profiling. Complex big data analyses may be useful to enhance air travel comfort to aviation safety by tracking the behavior of passengers, the crew etc. as well as meticulous follow up of all data obtained from a flying aircraft to improve the maintenance protocols.
  13. Thus AeroSpace sector, though in one sense a mature operational sector, is also having a number of new green shoots thus defying its own ageing process. Therefore the AeroSpace professionals in India have new opportunities to produce things at a world class level excelling in global competition and also serving the people of India.

In the next few paragraphs, I will try to elaborate as to what ought to be done in order to shape the emerging India AeroSpace Future. Invoking from what I said at the beginning of the talk, I am also going to say some “DON’Ts in addition to “DO’s” The reason is that India does not have any more new window of opportunity to come by; the luxury of missed opportunities, is no more an option.


Having been in the business of foresight (the current popular word for thinking ahead systematically and pragmatically) right form my ISRO days of 1970’s, I have seen (painfully) how many excellent opportunities were thrown away in almost all sectors -- from agriculture, to fisheries to animal husbandry to electronics to biomedical to aerospace sectors. Because of that inaction for decades, India cannot now start with ab initio concepts to do things as it would take a decade or more to show first results. Look at what happened to LCA now transformed to TEJAS. I am happy that amid such arid zone, a helicopter from HAL is trying to compete in the global markets.

But let us not resolve- repeat- not resolve to make an India designed civilian aircraft – whatever size. Let the Aeronautics community rally behind a few joint ventures which will manufacture some substantial amount of parts and assemblies in India and if possible even assembly of full civilian aircraft. Let us also at the same time encourage foreign companies who may not be ready to make joint ventures but willing to establish their fully owned manufacturing, design, R &D facilities in India. Though the management may be foreign, for sheer reasons of profitability they will use Indian personnel to work for them in their organizations. That will create a huge human capital in aerospace sector which was not forming well in India, due to the missed opportunities. These companies would source many materials, parts and even designs locally. That process will create ancillary sectors as it happened for automobiles. Also some of our bold entrepreneurs may develop new start ups in such a vibrant ecosystem. Those start ups may be able to sell globally and also to the India located companies fully foreign, fully domestic or joint ventures. In such a process Indian PSU’s would also try to rejuvenate themselves, if undue protection is not given to them and if they are allowed to function freely in a professional manner. There may be a number of questions to me when I suggest the about such a strategy. What about the strengths in core technologies? I will be told “Foreign companies will not give such know-how to us either in a JV or in their India operations. They will be several steps ahead of us. Such advanced R&D will be done by them in their companies abroad (USA, Canada, Europe or Japan)”.My answer is: “ Yes, indeed; why should they give away their leadership to anybody else-- be it China, India, Brazil or Israel on a platter? Keeping up leadership in advanced and critical technologies is in their national interest and company’s interest.”

Japan or Israel or China has struggled for over two decades to achieve leadership in some special niches. Japan supplies to USA some very advanced aero worthy composite material. When a company located in other countries acquires some special capabilities, aerospace giants from the developed countries won’t mind dealing with them. I do not want to flood you with examples even for China. To blame only “ technology denial regimes” for delays in Indian R&D projects is like attributing full blame on “climate change” for the recurrent floods in our rivers or for urban flood disasters in Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, etc. I will be the last person to accept a situation where India had to be an eternally dependent nation on foreign companies to manufacture in India. The situation until very recently was that India was importing full systems from abroad being NUMBER ONE in the rank of military systems importer in the world! A wrong place to be number one!

We indeed need R&D in the country. We need some advanced research as well as India designed systems or subsystems which can meet not only just domestic markets but also capture some niche international markets. But it cannot be achieved just by saying that we are second to none and keep funding our academic/ R&D institutions in the same way as we did in the past and are doing now. I am pained to see the brilliant academics chasing only international citations and acceptance by select foreign journals the editorial priorities of which do not match India’s developmental and strategic needs. Similarly laboratories of DRDO, NAL, etc should not take pride in spreading thin in all areas. As of now their record of performance in terms output towards commercialization in crucial areas is poor. They need to orient urgently towards a few select gap areas (not full aircraft!) and work on a project mode (I avoid the word Mission mode because that word has been abused and misused!) to deliver products (this word product includes software as well). Most of Govt. R&D grants including that from DRDO should be focused on these projects alone! The projects should be of 3 to 4 years duration only in order to be judged and to keep pace with the challenges ahead.

If necessary two independent R&D groups can be funded for the same product to compete with each other, depending on the criticality of the new product to capture new markets. These R&D groups should work closely with an Industry or a consortium of industries right from the beginning. Fitting into the value chain of global aeronautics industry and also add some additional performance to our own users in military or civil sectors should be the only focus. It should not be a free-wheeling R&D. If we can spot some new domestic or foreign IPR’s which show promise of a new technology enhancement, we may even buy them and build further R&D on them.

In short, let us make our indigenous R&D focus on end-use, timely delivery, and rapid commercialization. (I use the word “commercialization” to include even the cost competitive operationalisation if it is going to be Govt. users for tasks in public interest areas). If such deliveries are done on a large scale with high quality, an industry created out of Indian design, development and delivery, will be born soon and grow rapidly. It is possible to do so within a decade if rigorous regime I had described is followed meticulously and the current methods of working are drastically changed.


I had described earlier about the New Situation that has arisen in India. A number of items from (a) to (i) are listed. In each of them there are a number of innovative technologies and engineering challenges. Specialists in this august audience are better placed to disaggregate the details and items on which emphasis had to be given. I also note that a number of speakers in this event are addressing several specialties. My appeal to all of you in the Indian AeroSpace community is: “Please do not keep doing the same thing again and again and expect different results than what we have had during pat six decades or so”-- to paraphrase an Einstein quote. That is why I had elaborated DO’s & DON’T’s in the section “The Way Forward”. It is a methodology. The detailed items identified by the specialists have to go through those filters for actual implementation.

I am confident that if you all make up your minds and get into action sincerely, you can achieve a level of world leadership for India AeroSpace in about two decades (at the end of a decade many hopeful signs will emerge). Therefore I am not listing any particular technology or a product (big or small) that would fit into the domestic and global value chains. In this last section I want to stimulate your thoughts towards new application areas, because in our country we are generally tuned to look at AeroSpace as being essentially tied up with military systems and metro connecting high volume aviation. Of course they are big in size and have in them several lakhs of crores of rupees in terms of business and large employment. They are vital; no doubt on that.

But aerospace in the current era can spread to applications for agriculture, water management, continuous monitoring of lakes, disposal solid and liquid wastes, etc; these are also huge in size. Given the easy abundant availability of high resolution satellite based remote sensing data on one side and the miniature sensors and transmission systems which can be fitted on UAV’s on the other end, continual monitoring of many agriculture related parameters and their immediate dissemination with user-friendly value addition to the farmers and administrators are possible if India-specific, locale-specific systems are designed and implemented. Some parameters are soil health related. Govt. of India has announced a soil health card programme already. I need not expand on other items like garbage /waste monitoring. Remember that there are about 50,000 colleges in India and a few million higher secondary schools. They are valuable human resource base to build up a huge operational network, on a business scale. Local ground truths can be obtained on smart mobile phones by them with excellent geo-spatial codes. UAV’s can periodically have a closer and more intense look of a larger area- call them “UAV cells”. For whole of India they can be around 10,000 “UAV cells” something close to the number of blocks about 6000 in India (block is an administrative unit). Earth observation satellite data from Indian or foreign sources can keep on providing a higher aggregation level data. All these can be linked with computer-communication networks. Big Data Analysis based systems can easily disaggregate user friendly messages and send to Indian user in the languages of their choice (even with images and voice); one can build- in a feed back or talk- back features as well to enhance the value to the end users. AeroSpace is the crucial link which will make it possible with great real time speed.

This is not just for fun. If carefully planned along with the real users such as farmers, municipalities, village administrators, NGO’s who do something concrete on the ground instead of simply agitating or raising slogans for media (there are a number of them), traders, transporters, public health sector personnel, etc, such a system can transform India into a prosperous, clean and healthy nation. Nature will then revive with full bloom. Indian people will get out of current hassles. Having worked for many years for the National Natural Resources Management System (NNRMS) I am deeply aware of the current inadequacies in supplying useful data to our people living in villages, towns, forests, marshes, coasts, riverside dwellings etc. Still our high tech applications are not touching their lives as much as they can do like ubiquitous TV and Mobile phones, the only two items which reach most Indians in a major way becoming a part of their lives. Most of us would like to reach them with really relevant Information to improve their economic status, health, local living conditions(Swacch), etc. And we can also enable them to ask back and obtain further information to enhance the value of such information for themselves, in their languages. That will also form one glorious feature of DIGITAL INDIA, which Indian Aero Space sector can deliver easily, say in about 5 years, even while it would take up the challenge of two-decade marathon & sprints to obtain global leadership of India Aero Space.

I am sure that the bright and bold minds here will pick up this Challenge of “India Aero Space Digital Service” to all Indians in addition to the two decade marathon interspersed with sprints described in the earlier part of the talk. Thank you.

(Delivered as the Bharat Ratna Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam Memorial Lecture at the 68th Annual General Meeting of the Aeronautical Society of India with its deliberations focused on “Emerging Trends in Aerospace Technology” held at G V RAJA Conventional Centre, Hotel Samudra, Kovalam, Thiruvananthapuram on 22 September 2017).