Defence space startups need boost from Armed Forces, industry to hit higher orbit

Top commanders of the Indian armed forces and the DRDO chief on Thursday called for deeper collaboration between the government, industry, startups and end-users like the Indian Army and Navy to bolster the country’s space defence capabilities.

“I can say that there is enough space for everyone to grow.

I wish that all the startups in the space domain graduate to become unicorns and then flourish as global partners in the times to come,” said General Anil Chauhan, Chief of Defence Staff, Indian Armed Forces, in a virtual address at the Indian DefSpace Symposium 2024 organised by the Indian Space Association (ISpA).

In an effort to boost collaboration between the Indian space and defence sectors, the second edition of the Indian DefSpace Symposium kicked off on Thursday in New Delhi.

The three-day symposium will explore the latest trends and challenges in the defence space sector, enabling the key stakeholders from the defence sector, Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), government entities, and industry professionals to collaborate.

“During the last India DefSpace Symposium, we saw the industry working closely with the Ministry of Defence and user-stakeholders for the finalisation of DefSpace Challenge winners.

Now that most of the Innovations for Defence Excellence (iDEX) winners have been finalised, it’s important for the users to deeply engage with the startups to facilitate and handle the technology development process so that the delivered products can meet the expectations of the services,” said General Anil Chauhan, adding, “I will call upon the DRDO to deeply engage with the Indian startup community in partnership with the Indian space industry to develop cutting-edge solutions that will help reduce the technology gap vis-à-vis our adversaries.”

The iDEX framework was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2018 to support innovation in the Indian defence sector, create pathways for adoption of technologies in the armed forces, and seed future defence enterprises. It is the operational framework of the Defence Innovation Organisation (DIO), which is a special purpose vehicle under the aegis of the Ministry of Defence’s Department of Defence Production.  

In December, iDEX reached a milestone with the signing of its 300th contract.

The Indian Army alone is pursuing 55 projects through the iDEX route worth Rs 400 crore.

In March, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh launched the Acing Development of Innovative Technologies with iDEX (ADITI) scheme with a corpus of Rs 750 crore.

The scheme will focus on innovation in strategic and critical defence technologies from startups through grants of up to Rs 25 crore.  

“Earlier, I had mentioned developing a legal and academic framework for our space capabilities.

There is a need to develop and update our doctrines to ensure that space and cyber elements are deeply integrated at the strategic, operational and tactical levels,” added General Anil Chauhan.  

Addressing the inaugural session, Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral R Hari Kumar, said, “The Bhartiya Nausena (Indian Navy) has resolved to be a fully Atmanirbhar (self-reliant) force by 2047 and we actively seek the support of our partners in the space industry in our relentless pursuit of the same.”

“Space technology has emerged as the key enabler for bolstering maritime security… Looking ahead, synergy with several space agencies, industry and initiatives like iDEX promises further advancements that encourage innovation and self-reliance by pooling resources across academia, industry and startups,” said Admiral Kumar, adding, “I would encourage the space sector, MSMEs and startups to borrow a leaf from our successful initiatives in indigenisation.”

Admiral Kumar stressed that like iDEX, the Navy has been working with MSMEs, startups, academia, students and innovators under the Naval Innovation and Indigenisation Organization (NIIO) to push the technology curve forward.

Also present at the symposium’s inaugural day, DRDO Chairman Samir V Kamat said, “Space situational awareness, space-based surveillance, launch on demand capability are some areas where we need to develop capabilities further. We can do this if we all work together.”

Stressing that space and defence collaboration was going to be a key focus area, Kamat said, “We are willing to work with startups and industry.

We are also willing to fund research and development in this area. iDEX already has 75 challenges, but we also have another mechanism called the Technology Development Fund, under which we can provide funding of up to Rs 50 crore.”

Kamat also invited startups and MSMEs to approach the DRDO if they have good proposals or ongoing projects.  

During the welcome address, ISpA Chairman Jayant D Patil said, “Till 2020, we were just about 2 per cent of global space commerce.

Today, we have clear plans to reach about $44 billion. When the industry, users and space professionals start coming together, things can happen.”

The first day of DefSpace Symposium 2024 witnessed sessions and panel discussions on a wide range of topics, from challenges in the defence space sector to China’s military space capabilities.