By Commodore Arun Pratap Golaya
To provide unprecedented thrust to Atmanirbhar Bharat during the 75th year of Independence, and provide ‘acceleration’ in induction of disruptive defence technology as a part of the Amrit Mahotsav, it has been proposed that iDEX, NIIO and TDAC (Technology Development Acceleration Cell – the innovation arm of NIIO) collaborate on ‘pole-vaulting’ R&D support for disruptive technology. This initiative aims at inducting at least 75 Indian-developed products into the Indian Navy before 15 Aug 2023 – with the support of the Defence Innovation Organisation (DIO). A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) has been signed between NIIO and DIO for SPRINT (Supporting Pole-Vaulting in R&D through iDEX, NIIO & TDAC) to sponsor and fund startups, MSMEs, universities and even individuals using the existing procedures for iDEX.
“We feel that our pole-vaulting metaphor is the need of the hour. Its message is being proactive, not reactive; setting the bar at extraordinary heights, not jumping to safety, like a frog does due to a fear of predators, but pole-vaulting over the walls of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the size of the pole being the size of the aspirations.”RA MASHELKAR AND RAVI PANDIT IN ‘FROM LEAPFROGGING TO POLE-VAULTING’
The time to ‘leapfrog’ to keep pace with the fast-changing technology is over. We now need to ‘pole-vault’ to greater heights. The Naval Innovation and Indigenisation Organisation (NIIO) has proposed just this through a collaborative project aptly named ‘SPRINT’.
The Principle Players
The NIIO was launched in August 2020 by the Hon’ble Raksha Mantri. The three-tiered organisation has the Naval Technology Acceleration Council (NTAC) at the top. NTAC is Chaired by the Vice Chief of Naval Staff and meets every six months to give apex-level guidance on the twin aspects of innovation and indigenisation. The NIIO Working Group (NIIO WG) under the NTAC is co-Chaired by the Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Staff Requirements) and the Assistant Chief of Materiel (Modernisation). This body meets every two months (or more often if required) and regularly monitors the progress of the cases. The actual implementation of the decisions is undertaken by TDAC and the Directorate of Indigenisation in conjunction with other stakeholders.
TDAC is a lean organisation with only four officers. The decision to keep the group small was deliberate and taken to permit quick decision-making. They are supported by young officers in the field who have been chosen for their demonstrated ability for out-of-the-box thinking. Such officers, regardless of rank, have been permitted to directly communicate with Naval Headquarters, thus creating a flat, hierarchy-less structure. In addition to channelling in-house naval innovations, TDAC is responsible for interaction with academia and the industry.
The Defence Innovation Organisation (DIO), formed as a ‘not for profit’ company as per Section 8 of the Companies Act 2013, administers the Innovation for Defence Excellence (iDEX) programme. The implementation is managed by a specialised team with functional autonomy. The Ministry of Defence (Department of Defence Production) was conferred with the Prime Minister’s Award for Excellence in Public Administration, 2021, for the iDEX initiative.
As mentioned earlier, an MoU has been signed between the NIIO and DIO to collaborate on the ambitious aim of inducting 75 technologies/products into the Navy as a part of the Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav (Celebrating the 75th year of Independence). The procedures applicable to iDEX will be followed, but both the organisations have agreed to substantially compress the timelines. Products successfully developed will be inducted using the accelerated procurement procedures applicable to iDEX cases.
Outreach To Academia & The Industry
Induction of cutting-edge niche technology involves close coordination between the users, the academic institutes and the industry.
The aim of NIIO has been to move away from a simple ‘buyer-seller’ relationship with the Indian industry – mainly startups – and to see them as partners. Deep tech startups working in key technological areas have been identified as ‘Industry Innovation Partners’ and are permitted access to ships, submarines and aircraft. This enables them to better understand the naval requirements. A monthly interaction with the industry has also been instituted on the last Friday of every month, wherein the industry is given a brief about the naval requirements through an interactive session focused on a particular theme. This is conducted in collaboration with the Society of Indian Defence Manufacturers (SIDM) as per a long-term calendar.
One long standing request from the industry has been for gaining a clearer idea about the plans for induction of technology – along with tentative timelines and numbers – so that they are better informed about the focus areas. This will enable the industry to concentrate the R&D effort in a focused manner. During discussions it emerged that any technology roadmap, by itself, would have limited utility as a stand-alone document – unless an idea about the requirements in terms of numbers is included. It has been decided that an unclassified version of the ‘Universal Unmanned Roadmap for the I.N’ will be shared with the industry. Whilst not being put into the public domain, the document will be available for access by interested industry partners.
For academia, in addition to working closely with many institutes, the Indian Navy has started the Indian Naval Students’ Technical Engagement Programme (IN STEP), whereby premier educational institutes are designated knowledge partners. Students from these institutes are encouraged to develop innovative solutions to naval problem statements. Hand holding is provided through a five-month online internship for the students. An Open Competition under IN STEP is ongoing, and three problem statements have been given to students to encourage creative thinking. The winners shall be invited to visit ships and also be taken for a day at sea.
Innovating Towards Nation Building
The role of the Navy towards nation-building has been well documented. The decision taken decades back to construct warships indigenously, to take just one example, not only enabled the transition of the Indian Navy from a buyer’s to a builder’s Navy but indeed created an ecosystem with the ancillary industry also getting a significant boost. This has only grown over the years. It will not be an overstatement to say that the Navy has been contributing to the country’s industrial base and, indeed, nation-building. The theme for the innovation pavilion on the occasion of Navy Day in 2021 was accordingly selected as ‘Innovating towards Nation Building’.
Since the launch of the NIIO, several IPR applications have been filed by the Navy based on inventions and innovations by naval personnel. Most of these are in-house innovations, but some joint patent applications with academic institutes and the industry have also been filed. These include both Navy-specific and dual-use innovations.
Notable amongst the dual-use innovations are the NavRakshak PPE innovated by a naval doctor – Surgeon Commander Arnab Ghosh – and the Aadyant Oxygen Recycling System innovated by Lieutenant Commander Mayank Sharma. Both were innovated at the start of the Covid pandemic but will undoubtedly have applications beyond the pandemic. Aadyant, for example, can reduce the oxygen levels in hospital Intensive Care Units by recycling the exhaled oxygen. This can substantially reduce the risk of fires in addition to reducing costs. There are numerous military applications of the system also, and the logistics of providing oxygen cylinders at high altitude areas can be simplified if the life of each cylinder is enhanced many times over.
The SPRINT initiative is expected to substantially accelerate the induction of indigenous technology into the Indian Navy. In addition to over 75 problem statements by the Navy as iDEX (SPRINT) challenges which shall follow the DISC (Defence India Startup Challenge) procedures, the ‘Open Challenge’ format of iDEX is also applicable to SPRINT. Under the open challenge, suo moto proposals can be made by the industry or individual innovators. These shall then be examined for utility by the Services following the extant iDEX procedures.
Many proposals by the industry have already been received, and SPRINT will undoubtedly lead to the induction of a few game-changing technologies. Some others, whilst not so grand in scope, will nonetheless fill an existing void or a ‘felt need’ of the users.
Most importantly, this project brings together all stakeholders, including the users, academia, industry and incubation centres, through collaboration between the NIIO and DIO. This collaborative approach, by itself, holds promise for the future of innovation and indigenisation as the strength of each organisation is harnessed towards the shared goal of self-reliance in defence. We are not only moving towards this goal…we are SPRINT-ing towards it!
Cmde. AP Golaya is presently Officer in Charge of the Technology Development Acceleration Cell (TDAC) and handles innovation for the Navy. He has been bestowed with the honorary designation of Chief Advisor Defence Innovation by Rashtriya Raksha University. He is known as an author as much as an innovator