Based in Mumbai, India, drone manufacturer Idea Forge attended the 2022 Commercial UAV Expo to show off the products it has been developing for its native country’s armed forces – which incorporate both simple, robust designs and advanced capabilities that could make them well suited for commercial or tactical applications elsewhere in the world.
“When we were building these systems, and we had developed a few fixed-wing platforms earlier, one of the most common things we heard was that, ‘Every fixed-wing landing is a controlled crash,’” said Ankit Mehta, the company’s CEO. “So, we decided to make something so that even if it actually crashed was much simpler to repair or replace damaged components.”
To this end, the company’s vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) fixed-wing UAS – the Switch – incorporates wings and other components made of durable EPP foam. To demonstrate just how tough it really is, Mehta disconnects a wing from the airframe, drops it to his feet and jumps up and down on it, before re-connecting it to the aircraft, seemingly none the worse for wear.
“If people are worried about the cost of replacing their wings or making repairs to these systems, then they aren’t going to use them very often,” Mehta explained. “Since we want our customers to actually be able to use these systems, that’s why we went with EPP foam. It is known to be very tough and resilient.”
The Switch is an all-electric “embedded-multirotor” VTOL, with four vertical-lift propellers mounted on booms that allow it to launch and recover vertically from a small patch of ground. Then, once it is aloft, it transitions to fixed-wing flight using a single pusher prop, thereby benefiting from increased efficiency and performance. Of course, for the Indian military, like other drone users right around the world, flying is only a means to an end.
“We need to make sure that the customer is able to accomplish his mission,” said Mehta. “The customer is very rarely focused on flying as an outcome. When we look at what a customer wants to get done, particularly in the context of a security operation, he wants to observe the target while being as far away as possible – out of earshot of the target – while still being able to see what is happening with as much clarity as possible.”
To this end, the Switch incorporates a 25x visible-light camera mounted in a sensor turret on the underside of the aircraft. According to Metha, this gives the operator the ability to discern whether or not the subjects under surveillance are carrying weapons from nearly a mile away.
“As a company, we believe that the customer’s mission, especially if it’s a security mission, is more relevant at night, because that’s when they can’t see with their own eyes. So, for us, the challenge becomes how do we get them eyes in the night?” Metha asked.
Answering his own question, Metha explains that the sensor turret also incorporates a high-resolution thermal camera with a very narrow field of view – again with the goal of providing the company’s customers with maximum standoff from their targets.
Weighing about 15 pounds, the Switch can fly for more than two hours at mean sea level and has been proven to deliver more than 90 minutes of flight time when launching at an elevation of nearly 15,000 feet above sea level – a wide performance envelope well suited for India, with territory that stretches from broad river deltas and the Himalayas.
In attending the Commercial UAV Expo Idea Forge is seeking potential customers in the United States and Europe for its products.
“It is the highest-performing platform for its weight class in this category of systems, and it goes in a backpack with two batteries that weighs less than 35 pounds,” said Metha. “That means you can carry it in the field and you are set up for continuous operations.”
TEXT & PHOTOS BY PATRICK SHERMAN