New Delhi, Aug. 28: The government’s technical intelligence wing NTRO has increased “man hours” of sorties by unmanned aerial vehicles to cover more Maoist-affected areas amid hints the flying surveillance could reach 20 hours a day by the end of the year.
A source said an “increase to 20 hours per day would be achieved by December”, which would mean twice the coverage in terms of hours the UAVs, a key component in the battle against the rebels, are deployed now.
Sources said the increase would be incremental, or gradual, from the five-to-10-hour missions at present.
The December deadline is also linked to a plan to set up an additional UAV base at Nandini airport in Bhilai, Chhattisgarh.
The National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) now undertakes UAV operations from Begumpet airfield in Hyderabad to support anti-Maoist manoeuvres by paramilitary forces.
Since December 2012, the UAVs have contributed to a number of successful operations. But they were limited to missions of five to 10 hours and were restricted to a range of about 500km from Begumpet. This meant that flying to remote areas in Jharkhand or Bihar was not possible. Moreover, Begumpet is the only airfield where the NTRO has an air-traffic control (ATC).
With increase in flying hours, the missions are expected to cover Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra, the sources said.
The extended missions would, however, extend beyond the existing watch hours of the air traffic control in Hyderabad.
The NTRO and the home ministry have already taken up the matter with the ministry of civil aviation and the Airports Authority of India for clearances.
Officials said the ATC “man hours” too were being incrementally increased in view of the monsoon season as UAVs have limited efficiency in cloudy weather. The unmanned aerial vehicles provide not only real-time images but also electronic intercepts.
While armed “drones” have been used across the world, India does not deploy armed UAVs but uses them only for reconnaissance and surveillance operations over Maoist-affected areas and international borders.
Because of the UAVs, the Maoists are said to have cut down on using mobile phones and increased reliance on couriers.
The NTRO’s operations from the ground are conducted by Indian Air Force personnel.
The IAF has provided six Mi-17 helicopters to support security forces in rebel-affected states. The helicopters are located in Ranchi, Jagdalpur and Raipur.