The project, which envisages a Jaguar land attack aircraft launching up to 24 killer drones that take down individual targets, already has the Indian Air Force on board and involves at least two startups as well as Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), people aware of the development told ET.
Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (CAIR) is also involved to help build artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities for target acquisition.
Being developed under the Combat Air Teaming System (CATS) project, the plan is to complete the development process within four years, sources said. The project involves development of four individual systems that will be parallelly tested, they said. The design is underway.
As per current plans, the system will be designed around a manned Jaguar land attack aircraft that is used for deep penetration attack missions, sources said. The mothership would be modified to carry four pods – each a drone that would be able to fly alongside the Jaguar once released.
The concept is that each pod would carry six hunter killer drones that can be launched towards a target area. As the pods are being designed for autonomous operation, the Jaguar crew would be able to direct them in an anti-aircraft weapons environment while staying out of range.
Also being designed is a Very High Altitude Long Endurance (VHALE) unmanned aircraft that will be able to monitor the system and provide real time feedback to controllers. The VHALE is being designed to loiter for days at a stretch at above 70,000 feet, enabling a constant eye on the target area, while staying out of range of most air defence systems.
Sources said detailed presentations on the system have been made to the air force that has expressed a keen interest in the project. The next step is to test individual systems after the design process is completed.
The project would take India into a select league of nations with such technology, the others being France and the US. Sources said the initial projections make it a highly cost-effective system, with the developmental and prototype cost pegged at under Rs 1,000 crore.
While India has a combat edge in the neighbourhood as far as fighter jets go, the ever-present threat has been advanced air defence systems being acquired by adversaries.