Thursday, July 25, 2024

NIIO & Technology Leapfrogging

By Vice Admiral G. Ashok Kumar (r.)

The Naval Innovation and Indigenisation Organisation – or NIIO – was launched on 13 August 2020 by the Hon’ble Raksha Mantri, with the Hon’ble Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh participating online. This was an Indian Navy’s initiative to put in place dedicated structures for the end-users to interact with academia and industry towards fostering innovation and indigenisation for self-reliance in defence, in keeping with the Hon’ble Prime Minister’s vision of Atmanirbhar Bharat. While the Navy already has an impressive track record of indigenisation, the NIIO aims to encourage innovation through enhanced synergy between the Indian Navy-Academia-Industry triumvirate to enable technology leapfrogging for the Navy. To achieve this, The NIIO was conceptualised with several structural arrangements through MoUs with Defence Manufacturers, Start-Ups, MSMEs and Defence Industrial Corridors; Chairs of Excellence at various educational institutions of repute; regular formal interaction between representatives of the triumvirate; an annual seminar; and a mechanism for the industry to reach out to the end-user as and when so desired, to match the exact needs of the user with the capabilities of the industry.

On the day of the launch of NIIO, the Indian Navy also signed MoUs with the Society of Indian Defence Manufacturers (SIDM), the Uttar Pradesh Defence Industrial Corridor through the Uttar Pradesh Expressways Industrial Development Authority (UPEIDA), the Rashtriya Raksha University (RRU) and the Maker Village, Kochi. With a view to ensure that the MoUs do not remain a mere paper exercise, structures have since been put in place to develop the Navy-Industry relationship to one of partnership.

While, towards indigenisation, the Indian Navy regularly prepares, updates, and promulgates its indigenisation requirements in the form of ‘Indian Naval Indigenisation Plan’ (INIP) and the ‘Naval Aviation Indigenisation Roadmap’, a new document, named “Swavalamban”, combining the entire Indian Naval indigenisation requirements, including that of ammunitions, was released on the same day. This helps the industry clearly understand the naval indigenisation requirements. However, in so far as innovation was concerned, free, open, and regular interaction with the industry was understood to be an inescapable requirement. Towards this, the Indian Navy, in collaboration with SIDM, has taken many initiatives. An exhibition and a monthly interaction between the Navy and SIDM, with industry representatives, over

the CII HIVE Platform, as well as setting-up a video-conference on a request by any industry to interact with the end-user at short-notice, have been instituted to enhance cooperation. Additionally, the Indian Navy has formalised a ‘Naval Technology Acceleration Committee’, or NTAC, that meets every six months, with participation by all the relevant stakeholders.

Towards addressing the more significant challenge of developing the Indian private sector capability to meet the defence needs, the approach was taken by the Navy indeed helps overcome this. The aim has been to move beyond a buyer-seller relationship and see the Indian industry as a partner. The Navy, in collaboration with the Society of Indian Defence Manufacturers {SIDM), has launched a yearlong online exhibition by the defence industry on 29 October 2021– specifically for naval personnel. This is bound to be extended beyond one year and become a permanent feature.

In addition, regular monthly interactions with the industry have also been planned as per a long-term calendar. This would help address the concerns of small firms that often do not know whom to contact in the Defence headquarters and are sketchy about the acquisition procedures. Intending to be proactive and provide constant guidance to the industry, the Navy has identified a mechanism for the industry to clarify any doubts or seek, at short notice, a virtual meeting with the end-users through the use of the CII-HIVE platform.

Further, some high-tech and niche technology start-ups have also been identified as ‘Industry Innovation Partners’ and MoUs signed with them. Raphe Mphibr, Newspace Research and Technologies, Sagar Defence Engineering and Ancor Research Lab are just some of the names which come to mind, and all these firms are engaged in cutting edge work in the fields of Artificial Intelligence, autonomous & unmanned systems, Electronic Warfare, and the like.

A Point of Contact is provided by the Navy to such firms, and visits to ships, submarines and aircraft are facilitated. While procurement would continue to follow the laid down norms, these measures would go a long way in helping the industry understand the requirements of the Navy and the constraints of space and weight onboard naval platforms better. Similarly, these also help the Navy understand the exact capabilities and potential of specific industries. These engagements are not limited to the private sector alone, and some naval innovations are reportedly undergoing trials after being manufactured by DPSUs.

The other vital pillar of this triumvirate is academia. In addition to the plans to set up ‘Chairs of Excellence’ at some of the IITs, the Navy has signed MoUs with many leading universities and colleges within the country. An innovative internship programme for the students, named IN STEP, or ‘Indian Naval Students Technical Engagement Programme’, that the Navy started last year aims to engage young minds in top universities through a five-month online internship, with the Indian Navy providing ‘problem statements and regular guidance.

The results of such an initiative have already been encouraging, and in some cases the industry has shown a keen interest in taking forward the ideas that were conceptualised and prototyped by the students. Here, it is essential to note that globally, most innovations take place in universities. With time, the IN STEP programme should prove to be a catalyst in that direction in our country too. Here, the industry too would do well to use academia, and the IN STEP programme, through the Navy, to exploit the strength of our leading universities for research and development. This will prove to be the true strength of the triumvirate.

In addition to exploiting the strength of the Navy-Industry-academia synergy, the in-house ability of the Navy to innovate is also tapped into by the newly set up NIIO. All the disruptive and innovative thinkers in the Navy have been included in an unorthodox hierarchy-less ‘extended-TDAC’ structure (called VISTAR). This approach has already resulted in numerous IPR applications being filed by naval personnel in the short time since the NIIO was set up.

The portfolio of innovations would make any dedicated R&D organisation proud and includes inventions for war-fighting, such as Mine Detection System, Torpedo Counter Measure Systems, Missile Decoys and Ship Detection Algorithms; medical innovations, such as Nebulizer, low-cost digital stethoscope and many others; and, dual-use items such as deck paint ad marine life-jackets. Patent applications for these have been filed, and the technology is progressively being transferred to the private sector not only for the manufacture but indeed aimed at boosting India’s defence exports.

While details of successful war-fighting innovations by the NIIO organisation have not been publicised by the Navy for apparent reasons, enough particulars of most of the dual-use innovations by naval personnel are available from various press releases

and tweets and helps piece together the story of how the new initiative has performed creditably. To briefly look at a few examples, on 28 October this year, the Spokesperson Navy tweeted about medical innovations by naval personnel being handed over to the Rashtriya Raksha University for licensing and transfer of technology to MSMEs/Private Sector. Naval innovations such as the NavRakshak PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) innovated by a naval doctor – Surgeon Commander Arnab Ghosh – not only helped the country when no PPEs were being manufactured but is today a leading ‘brand’ at the national level.

This is now being manufactured by multiple MSMEs and is very popular with our COVID-warriors. This innovation alone, in addition to providing relief to countless frontline COVID-warriors, created over a thousand jobs at the time when jobs were severely impacted by the pandemic. The Aadyant Oxygen Recycling System (ORS), innovated by Lieutenant Commander Mayank Sharma, which is now being transferred to the industry, has been in the news for its ability to enhance the life of an oxygen cylinder many times over. The need for the same was acutely felt during the second wave of COVID. Such a system will obviously have a significant impact on oxygen consumption and has many applications even beyond COVID, including for defence applications.

It helps overcome logistics challenges for the Army in fighting ‘High Altitude Sickness’ by reducing the number of oxygen cylinders required, and also reduces the risk of fire in ICUs by resorting to recycling and thereby reducing the amount of oxygen being released into the air in enclosed spaces. Even if we ignore the commercial advantages of its use purely from the safety perspective, this equipment could well be a game changer. The risk of fire is real and ever-present on naval ships and submarines. Hence, in addition to the dual-use for hospitals around the country, the ORS is bound to have multiple uses for the Navy itself.

In Conclusion, setting up of an in-house Directorate of Naval design in the early 60s, with courses in naval architecture being conceptualised at premier academic institutions, the country has not only realised an indigenous capability to design every type of warship, including Submarines and Aircraft Carriers but also created hundreds of thousands of jobs and given boost shipbuilding as well as to ancillary industry and MSMEs.

In the book “Incredible India 2.0 – Synergies for Growth and Governance”, authored by Shri Amitabh Kant, CEO of NITI Aayog, a complete chapter was focused on the Indian Navy. The chapter was aptly titled ‘Unlimited Potential for the Navy to Reinvent’, and the author urged that “the Navy continue to proactively engage with industry, academia and think tanks … to guide the growth of the national industrial capability and skill development”. The launch of the Naval Innovation and indigenisation Organisation (NIIO) on 13 August 2021 by Raksha Mantri is bound to realise that dream in the years and decades ahead. Changes afoot today are, clearly, history in the making.


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