Interview: Ankit Mehta, CEO and co-founder of ideaForge

by Oishee Majumdar

Ankit Mehta, co-founder and CEO of ideaForge. (ideaForge)

The Indian Army's selection of ideaForge's Switch UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) to enhance its surveillance capabilities has given the company a lot of international visibility, Ankit Mehta, co-founder and CEO of ideaForge, told Janes.

Mehta said the Indian Army not only has been inducting systems, which are of a larger tactical medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE)/high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) category but also has been looking to extensively utilise mini-UAVs.

This trend coupled with Switch's qualification in the Indian Army's rigorous traditional evaluation process is expected to result in a lot of doors opening for ideaForge in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, Mehta said.

Although it is “early days of exploration” for ideaForge, the company is “progressively closing opportunities in some countries”, he said. At present, the regions that ideaForge has been pursuing include the Middle East, North Africa, and North America, he added.

ideaForge's core interest “at this point in time” is the development of manportable UAVs for “security and surveillance applications”, Mehta noted.

He said the company has been engaged in regularly upgrading these systems to enhance their performance and reliability. For example, ideaForge has been able to cut down the package size of its Netra V4 UAV for field operations by 50% or more. The UAV has also been tested to operate at an altitude of above 6,000 m.

Another priority for ideaForge is to improve the “autonomy” of the systems so that “the need for training a user as well as the need for user involvement in terms of generating an outcome from the system[s]” can be reduced, Mehta said.

To achieve this, ideaForge has been working on ensuring that the systems can take care of themselves in “myriad operational environments”. It has also been focusing on simplifying the UAV operator's decision making on aspects such as where and how to operate the UAV, enabling faster deployment of the systems, Mehta explained.

In addition, ideaForge has been working to provide “automated insights on to the screen” that the user looks at as the user manoeuvres the UAV during surveillance operations, Mehta said.

The company is also looking to make the process of controlling the movements and location of the UAVs more automated based on the missions that they are being deployed for, Mehta added.

Mehta also highlighted ideaForge's efforts to equip their systems with mapping capabilities so that they have the “ability to do land records”.

Some of ideaForge's UAVs are deployed by the Survey of India for mapping land parcels to execute the Indian government's Survey of Villages Abadi and Mapping with Improvised Technology in Village Areas (SVAMITVA) scheme, which plans to provide an integrated property validation solution for rural India, Mehta told Janes.

In terms of international partnerships to reinforce advancement its systems, Mehta said ideaForge has been collaborating with vendors around the world that supply the company with subsystems and components.

However, the company does not have “specific platform-level partnerships” since the entire platform is its proprietary technology, he added.

According to Mehta, “Almost all the Indian state police forces” are using ideaForge's UAVs for “crowd management, security management, surveillance, border management, counter-insurgency operations, and anti-terror operations.”

As part of its contract with the Indian Army in March, ideaForge will be delivering 200 Switch UAVs to the Indian Army “in about two years”, Mehta said.

The Switch UAVs that will be delivered under the March contract are not the high-altitude ones that will be delivered under the USD20 million contract ideaForge secured in January from the Indian Army, Mehta pointed out.

The two Switch UAV variants also differ in terms of their operational environments such as the temperature ranges in which they can operate, besides having other performance and features differences, Mehta said.

“Expectations to operate in slightly more challenging conditions than the high-altitude ones do exist” for the Switch UAVs under the March contract, Mehta noted.

Mehta told Janes that it has not been a “challenge” to train the Indian Armed Forces' personnel to operate ideaForge's systems. The systems are easy to use, and the company has even been able to train soldiers who lack high educational qualification or technical expertise, he added.

However, “as far as utilising the system is concerned, I am sure that training could be imparted by the forces [Indian Armed Forces] of how to leverage these technologies more effectively”, he said.

“There could be internal trainings” - some of which could be facilitated by ideaForge - on how to deploy these systems with the right concept of operations (CONOPS) and exploit them effectively for the operational situation that the Indian Armed Forces are looking to purchase these systems for, he added.

Mehta said many of the Indian government's recent initiatives such as the production-linked incentive (PLI) scheme, that was introduced in 2021, has had a positive impact on business.

It has altered the overall perception towards Indian UAV companies such as ideaForge in the country, Mehta said.

“The fear with which these businesses were operating in India need not be the basis of a conversation today” because “there is less trepidation and more clarity on what the law is”, he said.

The existence of “a line of sight to full implementability” of such policies has also helped “the industry to gain more clarity and to create an environment where we finally have a level playing field considering the kind of restrictions we have in our country”, he added.

These restrictions stem from India's membership in major international export control regimes such as the Wassenaar Arrangement which countries like China are not a part of enabling them to export technologies freely, he said.

“The PLI scheme has been very encouraging because now suddenly you have given cash back into the hands of entrepreneurs to do more development and research” to strengthen indigenisation, Mehta said.

This has been “useful” for companies such as ideaForge since “it is not easy to get a lot of capital” for developing UAV technologies because “firstly, it's hardware; secondly, the biggest set of customers is government; and thirdly, people don't understand these domains very well yet in our country”, Mehta explained.

According to Mehta, the Indian government should be focusing on building more demand – which he thinks the government has started working on – as well as have the ability to adopt innovative technologies without being restricted by “the crutches of the traditional procurement process” in India.

“If we get stuck in the loop of the way GFR [General Financial Rules] works or the way DPM [Defence Procurement Manual] works and we don't adopt to what DPP [Defence Procurement Procedure] has done, which is to allow contracts to be placed with single vendors, then we remain in a situation where we are not able to effectively utilise public money,” Mehta said.

The country will not benefit even if there is a good amount of public money, but this money is to be utilised for only adopting matured technologies and not innovative technologies, Mehta added.

“So there are things [that are] yet to be fixed,” Mehta said, adding that some of the issues have been addressed and these positive outcomes should encourage an improvement in the way public spending can be leveraged in India.

Mehta said ideaForge has been “keenly observing” the development of emerging technologies such as hydrogen-powered UAVs, and is willing to expand research and development in this area.

Systems, which depend upon the supply of sources that are not rapidly available in the way hydrogen fuel cells depend on the supply of pure compressed hydrogen gas, “render the whole chain a little bit broken for continuous use”, Mehta said.

Although hydrogen-powered UAVs have obvious benefits in terms of endurance, several operational challenges exist “because the logistics of its charging and its refuelling infrastructure is not yet widely available”. He said this makes it necessary to figure out a solution to overcome this bottleneck and enable the adoption of such technologies.

When asked if ideaForge has any plans to develop counter-UAV technologies in the near future, Mehta said that the company will collaborate with counter-UAV service providers to enhance the capabilities of its UAVs in certain areas such as evading detection or improving the actions and responses of the UAVs post-detection.

“But, we might not be the ones creating the detection technology or the defence against drones technology in that holistic sense at this point of time,” he said.

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The Indian Army's selection of ideaForge's Switch UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) to enhance its surve...

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