April 16, 2012: India recently activated its third (the 344th) UAV maritime patrol squadron at a base near the southeastern tip of India (Tamil Nadu). It was only 15 months ago that the second such squadron (the 343rd) was activated, five years after the first one (the 342nd) entered service. Each squadron has 62 personnel and four UAVs (two Searcher IIs and two Herons).
The Searcher II can stay aloft for 16 hours at a time. The Heron is similar to the U.S. Predator and can stay up for over 40 hours at a time. The radar and vidcam sensors enable the UAVs to provide unprecedented coverage on short notice. Israel is also using a version of the Heron for maritime reconnaissance. Israel is particularly eager for these UAVs to succeed at maritime recon, for that would open up a huge market for Israeli made UAVs and sensors. Israel has been the leader in UAV technology for over three decades and has been supplying UAVs to the Indian navy for eight years now. India has taken the lead in regularly using UAVs for maritime reconnaissance.
The second squadron was stationed at Porbander, up near the Pakistani border. The first squadron is stationed at Kochi, on the southwest coast. Another squadron is planned for the Andaman Islands, which will enable the UAVs to patrol the eastern sea approaches to the Indian coast. These patrols will be looking for smugglers and terrorists. The Andamans are a string of nearly 600 islands (most uninhabited) that are closer to Thailand than to India (which owns them). The islands extend south nearly to Indonesia, and thus cover traffic coming through the Malacca Straights.
Maritime patrol is a job that consists of many hours in the air looking for whatever, among not much. This is boring as hell for humans but ideal work for robots. One thing that makes UAVs for maritime patrol possible, or at least practical, is cheaper and more capable sensors. The most effective UAVs use synthetic aperture radar that works with onboard software to provide automatic detection, classification, and tracking of what is down there. Human operators ashore, or on a ship or in an aircraft, are alerted if they want to double check with video cameras on the UAV. Also carried are sensors that track the sea state (how choppy it is). For this kind of work one of the most important things is reliability. You don't want to lose these UAVs over open water. The Herons usually patrol for about 35 hours at a time, cruising at about 200 kilometers an hour. The Andaman chain is nearly 500 kilometers long, so UAVs can patrol it, and adjacent waters, rather easily. India has become a pioneer in UAV use for maritime reconnaissance, and their experience will be observed closely by other naval powers.