Akshay Kashinath, Head Business Development (Aerospace and Defence)
Carborundum Universal Limited (CUMI)
With the growing popularity of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), studies suggest the market will grow to $45.8 billion by 2025 with India becoming the world’s largest drone market by then. The Indian government has set a goal of achieving a $1 billion drone industry by 2025.
The government has already opened up the sector through policies like the Defence Production Policy of 2018 (DPrP), as well as the recent extent of Request for Proposals (RFPs) by the Ministry of Defence for indigenous UAVs. All these measures present a great opportunity for manufacturers to move up the totem pole of defence indigenisation through UAVs.
Military drones need to be sophisticated, resilient, stronger and more capable than UAVs or drones used in the private sector. This widens the scope of materials that are used for manufacturing defence UAVs and drones and the purposes for which they are built.
The use of nanomaterials in defence UAVs has the potential to revolutionize the way that India defends itself. Nanomaterials can make drones lighter, stronger, and stealthier. This will enable drones to carry heavier payloads and stay up in the air longer.
The transformative potential of nanomaterials for drones
Currently, almost all UAV structural parts are made from carbon fibre (CFRP) composites. CFRP composites offer several advantages over metals for lightweight aerial vehicles such as UAVs. The density of carbon fibre is lesser than that of aluminium or titanium which are the main metals used in aerospace applications. The lighter the structure, the longer range the UAV can cover, the more effectively it can manoeuvre, the heavier the payload it can carry, and the longer it can stay in the air. UAVs require sensors, cameras, and batteries. Therefore, any reduction in the weight of the structure results in higher payload-carrying capacity for the specified mission. CFRP composites are also stronger and stiffer than metals which increases the amount of load the structure can take without breaking or deforming.
Nanomaterials such as graphene hold the potential to revolutionize the UAV industry. The advantages offered by CFRP composites can be further enhanced by infusing graphene into the polymer of these composites. This can result in even lighter and stronger structural parts. Graphene-reinforced CFRP composite structural parts developed by CUMI have exhibited superior mechanical properties over conventional CFRP parts such as tensile strength and compressive strength. This breakthrough allows for the creation of more compact, agile, robust, and enduring drones, ushering in a new era of performance. Other potential advantages that nanomaterials could offer to UAVs are protection against lightning strikes and improvement in stealth capabilities by absorption of light.
India’s capability to manufacture these advanced materials at scale positions the country to drastically increase the production of these UAVs for both military and non-military applications. This will truly showcase the country’s potential to achieve a huge technological leap in the aerospace sector.
The ongoing research and development (R&D) in this area underscore a concerted effort afoot to replace traditional material with lighter alternatives. This is paving the way for the next generation of drones, featuring composite parts reinforced with graphene which is critical for defence UAVs.
The transformative properties of these materials, including heightened strength, flexibility, and conductivity, provide an edge that can be harnessed to propel India to the forefront of drone technology. With a conducive environment for R&D and production, the stage is set for India to not only meet its domestic demands but also emerge as a significant player in the global UAV arena. Companies such as CUMI are at the forefront of ushering in the nanomaterial revolution in UAVs by not only producing the CFRP composite structural parts but also producing the nanomaterial required to enhance the properties of these parts.