By Hari Babu Srivastava
A country of 130 billion people with an enormous demographic advantage in its favour, India has already amply demonstrated the prowess of the entrepreneurial spirit of Indian youth. The unprecedented growth of technology startups and Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) in the country is the result of a sound educational base, risk-taking ability of youth and a general zeal to excel in Indian society, ably supported by government policies and schemes, financing options and mentoring possibilities from a large pool of experienced specialists from academic institutions and accomplished senior Research and Development (R&D) professionals.
How a single intention of the government can galvanise the energy of Indian youth for technology development is perhaps best exemplified by a scheme called Technology Development Fund (TDF), a scheme announced by Arun Jaitley, the then Defence Minister, in 2015.
TDF was originally intended to allocate INR 10 Crore in the Union budget towards developing new defence or dual-use technologies. The fund was later converted into a scheme (TDF scheme), removing the limit of INR 10 Crore. The government has now confirmed its faith in the scheme by enhancing the project cost limit to INR 50 Crore (from the original INR 10 Crore) to develop deep technologies, subsystems and systems to enable startups and MSMEs to become major players as technology organisations and global supply chain.
TDF, A Class Of Its Own
There are several features that put TDF in a class of its own. First and foremost, it is a scheme that runs in consultative mode. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Service Headquarters (SHQs), Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT), academic institutions, industry associations and industry representatives, apart from the government, play participative roles in arriving at policy decisions, standard operating procedures, project approvals and technology development.
Secondly, a Project Mentoring and Monitoring Group (PMMG – a composite team of DRDO scientists and users with external industry/academia/R&D experts) ensures speedy feedback to the Development Agency (DA – that company that is entrusted by TDF scheme for technology development) on state of the art elsewhere, indigenous designs, simulation results, interface protocols, laboratory test protocols and test results, user test cases and trial analysis and etc.
Thirdly, the TDF scheme being end-user-driven research, the end user (SHQs/DRDO) and Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) ensure that the specialised test equipment, certification agencies, integration platforms and field test ranges are readily available to the DA, along with the required personnel from these agencies.
Fourthly, the scheme allows farming out of up to 40% of the project cost on academic consultancy, and this amount is fully funded by DRDO.
Fifthly, the TDF directorate, the facilitating agency of the TDF scheme in DRDO, provides a country-wide pool of experts to DAs in various disciplines. The DA may avail the services of experts from this readily available pool or any other expert it may like.
The Chairman of the Technical Committee of TDF, the Director General Technology Management (DG TM) of DRDO, is also able to connect the DA and PMMG with experts across the country, being the administrative/management head of all the external R&D activities of DRDO (in academia and industry – extramural research, research boards, futuristic technology management, DRDO Industry Academia Centres of Excellence [DIA-CoEs] and TDF).
Sixthly, the scheme provides up to 90% funding of the estimated project cost, in grant-in-aid mode, with joint Intellectual Property (IP) rights with DRDO. The DRDO, in general, will not use the IP for commercial purposes or transfer it to third parties, except in case of national interest/emergency in consultation with the DA.
Seventhly, DRDO ensures that filing of IP, processing and maintenance efforts are entirely undertaken and financed by it. While DA devotes full efforts to technology development, DRDO gets through the procedure of obtaining joint patents.
Eighthly, the scheme has well-defined milestones also used as payment or exit gates. The DA may obtain advancement (against Bank Guaranty) or may opt for reimbursement on milestone completion. If the technology proves too difficult to master, DA may opt out of the project. Such cases are discussed in the Technical Committee (having representation from SHQs, industry associations, and other government departments apart from DRDO) and recommended for approval by the Empowered Committee. The results from such endeavours are considered a ‘learning’ and ‘not a failure’, and the expenditure is regularised in the books of accounts.
Ninthly, the scheme provides an occasion for the successful developers to be in the company of the country’s top decision-makers, the political leadership of the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Secretaries to the Government of India (GoI) and Generals/Admirals/Air Marshals from Services apart from once in a lifetime kind of opportunities to visit advanced military platforms, field stations, high altitude areas (HAA), deserts and border security posts.
Critical Defence Technologies On The Horizon
With such support and opportunities available, let us look at some of the technology breakthroughs taking place through TDF enablement.
Indigenous IP, generated through R&D, is perhaps the only vehicle to transform India into a developed nation in the Amrit Kaal, a call given by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In developed countries, the research is mainly funded by private organisations, while research in futuristic and niche technologies is conducted by academia and government R&D Labs. India is not going to be an exception in this. However, for this to happen, Indian entrepreneurs need to earn enough to fund research within their organisations and in university systems and R&D Labs.
Technology development must be translated into products, manufacturing lines must be established, and supply chains must be assured of orders. The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), headed by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, has recently enabled procurement by services of components, assemblies and subsystems developed in the TDF scheme from time to time with a simplified procedure. Subject to products fulfilling the requirement of the Project Definition Document (a document jointly finalised agreement) in a single-stage composite trial, an order of predefined Minimum Order Quantity (MOQ) is assured by this simplified procedure.
For other assemblies/subsystems/systems that are not immediately procured, the Department of Defence Research and Development will provide a ‘Fit for Military Use’ certificate. These measures are expected to provide a catalytic effect to DAs for the export of such systems and technologies. DRDO is also simplifying the process of project approvals.
The simplified procedure proposes to allow funding of winners of various technology challenges/hackathons (currently ‘Dare to Dream’ and ‘Dare to Do’ challenges) that may be launched from time to time. With the technology consolidating the globe into a cyber village and expanding the applications from Deep Ocean to Deep Space, from multi-spectral sensors to measures, countermeasures and counter-countermeasures, from human-controlled battlefield to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and cyber-enabled digital warfare, it is imminent to enable Indian researchers to work shoulder to shoulder with the best in the world in industry and academia.
Accordingly, allowing Indian startups and MSMEs to have bilateral and multilateral collaborations with friendly countries is also being proposed to develop systems that not only meet the aspirations of the Indian Armed Forces but also win global competitions and accolades.
The country is very proud of its brave soldiers, the members of three Services, the Coast Guard and the Paramilitary Forces. TDF scheme provides an opportunity for all to enable our soldiers with cutting-edge technologies. The TDF scheme enables the partnership of the three Services and Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) with the technology developers in the country.
It is said the Indian Navy provides an ‘Ocean of Opportunities’ to the Karmveers, Agniveers, and the brave-hearts, the Indian Air Force (IAF) stretches their potential through ‘Sky is the Limit’, and the Indian Army makes them ‘best of the friends and worst of the enemies’. We at TDF believe that Vigyan Veers can transcend all these boundaries by providing technology leadership to master the depths of oceans, the vastness of the land and the challenges of aerospace.
As God Krishna says in Shrimad Bhagavad Gita:
हतो वा प्राप्स्यसि स्वर्गं, जित्वा वा भोक्ष्यसे महीं।
तस्मादुत्तिष्ठ कौंतेय युद्धाय कृत निश्चय:।।2.37।।
Some goals are so worthy it is glorious to pursue them, even at the cost of personal sacrifice. My invitation to the scientific community of the country to participate in the TDF endeavour to not only make our motherland Atmnirbhar in critical defence technologies and systems but also to realise the dream of ‘Designed and Made in India, for the world’.
An alumnus of IIT Roorkee and IIT Kanpur, Hari Babu Srivastava is a former Distinguished Scientist and Director General of DRDO. He is currently Professor of Practice at IIT Delhi and Visiting Professor of Practice at IIT Kanpur and IIT Roorkee. He is also an Honorary Distinguished Fellow of Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi. He is credited with pioneering developments in Electro-optic Fire Control, surveillance and High Power Fiber Laser Source Technologies indigenously. He was instrumental in establishing 15 DRDO-Industry-Academia Centres of Excellence in the country for conducting research in disruptive and transformational technologies through academia and industry.