Monday, January 10, 2011

China leads: What does the Indian aircraft making lack?

As India grows, it is scaling new aspirations in technology. And not surprisingly it is China again whose meteoric rise has now spurred India to reach another milestone—have our very own commercial jetliner.

India did show promise when NAL came out with the Saras in 2008. But serial production has been delayed over several technical problems, and then came the bombshell—our neighbour has not just developed but now starting serial production of its commercial aircraft.

China might have stolen a march, but India seemed to be back on track last year. In May 2010, the government decided to plough ahead with the RTA 70 project, which aims to develop a indigenous regional transport aircraft. Saras set the platform—the hope was to chisel it into something bigger.

The same month, a 15-member committee was set up under former ISRO chief G Madhavan Nair, to build the plane. He was going to head a medley of agencies—National Aerospace Laboratories or NAL, which made the Saras, the old warhorse Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, and the only other team that has build an aircraft—DRDO’s Light Combat aircraft unit.

But by this time China had moved beyond ideating to execution and India could only watch with dismay and awe as China announced plans to manufacture its first hundred passenger aircraft named C919. They already have their own fighter aircraft competing for sales with the Lockheed Martins and Boeings. Now they will compete with the Airbuses, and

Boeing’s commercial airlines. And that will bring billions of dollars in revenue. In the new year, we have that much less time to catch up with our bigger and nimble-footed rival. the good part is, we have the background and the legacy. “Our skills in rocket and missile technology will be used here,” says Nair, who was the chairman of ISRO during the pivotal Chandrayaan launch.

Nair says that the team has concluded, after a survey among airline companies, that a 90-seater aircraft with a 2,500 km flying range. will be much in demand, and can be manufactured in the short run. Such an aircraft will be similar to the ATRs or Bombardiers that are used by Jet or Kingfisher to connect a couple of tier II cities, or a tier I to a smaller one, like say Bangalore to Hyderabad.

Nair and his team are aiming for a private-public partnership and nothing has been firmed up as yet. “We are shortly going to ask interested parties about it,” he says. Such a partnership will include collaborating on technical skills, people, and the requisite funding. This would require government approval and the team is planning to submit its report only by April this year.

While this project seems like a laggard compared to the blitz-like pace that the Chinese have operated in recent times, “progress has been good overall, and a proper effort is underway,” according to Ratan Shrivastava, director, aerospace and defence, Frost and Sullivan. Nair is banking on the managerial experience of his team to see this project through bureaucratic mazes.

The all important report that Nair plans to submit will spell out the details of the aircraft and its suggested configuration and design, details of the market survey which found that a regional transport aircraft is the best bet, and a framework for the partnership with private players.

“We made the Light Combat Aircraft and the light helicopter—so we are ready with the technology,” says Dr AN Upadhyay, director, NAL. Shrivastava points out that Saras’s experience will also be invaluable.

That said, a lot of groundwork remains even if the government takes less time than usual to clear the project, it might still be stuck. For example, the DRDO eventually manages to make a new tank—but by the time it does make one fit to fight, the world has moved on to the next generation as has happened with the Arjun tank.

Getting private investment, therefore, might be difficult given that returns might not come soon, and might even get stuck. For example, if a company had put money on the Arjun tank, well, it still wouldn’t have got any returns even after a decade of trials. So Nair’s team has decided to hire experts to get private partners—SBI Caps and IDBI are at work to create a joint venture model, which can attract private players.

Another problem is getting the right people. “Domain experts are in short supply,” says Upadhyay. There is a dire need, he says, to groom professionals in both design and manufacturing to world standards.

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