January 11, 2011:
India activated its second UAV maritime reconnaissance squadron (the 343rd) , five years after activating its first one (the 342nd). The two squadrons share a fleet of Israeli aircraft (eight Searcher II and six Heron UAVs). The Searcher II san stay aloft for 16 hours at a time. The Heron is similar to the U.S. Predator, and can stay up for fifty 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 two decades, and has been supplying with UAVs to the Indian navy for eight years now. India has taken the lead in regularly using UAVs for maritime reconnaissance.
The new squadron will be stationed at Porbander, up near the Pakistani border. The first squadron is stationed at Kochi, on the west coast near the southern tip of India. Two more squadrons are planned for the southeast coast, and the Andaman islands. The UAV base in the Andaman islands 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 they are 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. 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.