India to evaluate TAPAS-BH-201 MALE UAV intended for all three services

India is developing its own medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) unmanned air vehicle (UAV) and will begin military trials during this month of August. The TAPAS-BH-201 is being offered to all three Indian military services. Testing will take place at the Aeronautical Test Range in Karnataka's Chitradurga. India's state-run Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is leading the TAPAS UAV program.

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India to evaluate TAPAS BH 201 MALE UAV intended for all three services The Tactical Airborne Platform for Aerial Surveillance-Beyond Horizon-201, designated as TAPAS BH-201 (formerly known as Rustom-II until 2016), is an ongoing developmental project in India led by the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) (Picture source: Indian Government)

The Tactical Airborne Platform for Aerial Surveillance-Beyond Horizon-201, designated as TAPAS BH-201 (formerly known as Rustom-II until 2016), is an ongoing developmental project in India led by the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE). The conceptual framework of TAPAS BH-201 is aligned with the design principles of the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator. The inaugural flight of TAPAS BH-201 took place in November 2016.

In October 2010, a senior official from DRDO indicated that the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator served as a clear model for the Rustom program. DRDO aimed to construct a viable unmanned aerial platform. The transformation of the robust surveillance drone by the Americans into a combat-capable drone provided DRDO with confidence to replicate this approach for the Rustom-H project.

Director P S Krishnan of ADE communicated in February 2012 that the design phase of Rustom-II had concluded, procurement orders were in place, and the UAV was on track for its inaugural flight scheduled in February 2014. In stark contrast to Rustom-I, the updated version boasts improved aerodynamic features, digital flight control systems, a sophisticated navigation suite, communication intelligence capabilities, medium and long-range electro-optic payloads, and synthetic aperture radar technology that facilitates cloud penetration. Rustom-2 possesses the flexibility to accommodate various combinations of payloads based on mission requirements, encompassing electronic intelligence systems and situational awareness tools. The drone is equipped with satellite communication for real-time battlefield data dissemination.

In September 2013, the Rustom-II entered comprehensive power taxi trials at the Kolar airfield near Bengaluru. Its role encompassed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) duties for all branches of the Indian armed forces. Once integrated, this domestically developed medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) multirole drone is poised to enhance India's military capabilities, offering both surveillance prowess and the potential for deployment as an unmanned armed combat vehicle.

TAPAS-BH-201 accomplished its inaugural successful flight on November 16, 2016, in Challakere, located 200 km from Bengaluru within the Chitradurga district of Karnataka, India. The flight testing encompassed take-off, landing, and other vital parameters. A projected production rate of ten unmanned UAVs was established for each year. Nine subsequent prototypes, featuring enhanced capabilities beyond the initial model, were slated for testing before entering the certification phase. Initially, DRDO's Chief S. Christopher denied plans for arming Rustom-II. Reports surfaced about the possible use of an Austro Engine power plant, but DRDO did not confirm these details, particularly given the acquisition of Austro Engine by the Chinese company Wanfeng Auto Holding Group through Diamond Aircraft Industries in 2016.

While it was reported that a 180hp engine from Austro replaced the 125hp Rotax 914 in the AF-5 prototype, ADE also contemplated incorporating a 200hp power plant from Lycoming Engines to enhance the power-to-weight ratio. In parallel, the Vehicle Research and Development Establishment (VRDE) and Tech Mahindra initiated efforts to develop an indigenous engine for Rustom-II.

Over the testing phase, five additional prototypes were manufactured, closely resembling the production variant. These models were equipped with twin NPO-Saturn 36MT turboprop engines, each rated at 74.57 kW (100 hp). ADE also worked towards reducing Rustom-II's weight by 260 kg. The platform's evolution progressed towards establishing a long-endurance surveillance platform capable of deploying precision munitions. With dimensions measuring 9.5 meters in length and a wingspan exceeding 20.6 meters, the unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) requires a runway for takeoff and landing, distinguishing it from conventional UAVs. While an initial weight target of 1,800 kg was set, the prototypes tipped the scales at 2,200 kg. The cruising speed of Rustom-II stands at 135 knots while carrying a payload of 350 kg.

The drone is designed for autonomous high-altitude loitering, performing real-time, high-resolution intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations through its synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and electro-optical (EO) sensors. Upon target identification, the drone is capable of both illuminating the target with a laser designator for subsequent strike aircraft or descending to lower altitudes to independently engage the target with its air-to-surface missiles.

The Combat Vehicles Research and Development Establishment (CVRDE) successfully conducted low-speed and high-speed taxi trials for Rustom-2's Tricycle Nose Wheel Type Retractable Landing Gear System on August 2, 2018, in Chitradurga. However, prototype AF-6 of Rustom-2 experienced a crash on September 17, 2019, attributed to a loss of communication with the ground station, which triggered the "return home mode." The platform's instability was exacerbated by severe turbulence beyond the control system's capabilities. This issue was subsequently resolved in prototype AF-6A, which featured upgrades such as a lightweight solid-state relay-based power distribution unit, an indigenous inertial navigation system, and lithium-ion batteries equipped with satellite communication (SATCOM) links.

DRDO conducted flight tests on Rustom-2, achieving an impressive eight hours of flight time at an altitude of 16,000 feet in Chitradurga, Karnataka, in October 2020. The prototype aimed to reach an altitude of 26,000 feet and an endurance of 18 hours by the end of 2020.

On November 13, 2021, Rustom-2 successfully demonstrated its autonomous take-off and landing capabilities using GPS-aided GEO augmented navigation (GAGAN). The drone's design incorporates a T-shaped tail assembly and shoulder-mounted wings to optimize payload visibility. The platform features a Tricycle Nose Wheel Type Retractable Landing Gear System designed to accommodate high touchdown speeds and sink rates during landing. Subsequent milestones include the successful crossing of altitudes of 25,000 feet and 28,000 feet, along with endurance demonstrations of 10 hours and 18 hours, respectively, achieved on December 16, 2021, and March 2022. The advanced ground control and image exploitation system of Rustom-2 garnered praise from the Indian Armed Forces.

In May 2022, the TAPAS-BH-201 system was transferred to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) for limited production. The drone underwent testing during Aero India 2023, where it was showcased in public demonstrations.

On June 16, 2023, DRDO and the Indian Navy jointly demonstrated the transfer of command and control capabilities of TAPAS-BH-201 from a remote ground station to the onboard INS Subhadra, located 148 kilometers from the Karwar naval base. The UAV was operating at an altitude of approximately 20,000 feet. The integration on INS Subhadra included the installation of a Ground Control station and two Ship Data Terminals to manage UAV operations.

On June 27, 2023, DRDO marked the 200th flight of TAPAS-BH-201, presenting it to the tri-services team for the first time at ATR Chitradurga. With these accomplishments, TAPAS-BH-201 became ready for user evaluation trials.