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Eye in Red sky

New Delhi, July 24: Starting this week, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will be used for the first time for surveillance over the country’s Maoist zones.

In October, hired and privately flown military-class helicopters will make their debut in anti-Maoist operations by ferrying troops and supplies.

On the first clear day this week, a Heron an Israeli-made UAV that looks like the water-bird heron will make its first flight over the Abujhmadh forests, and will later be joined by two more.

The three Herons have been procured by the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), which provides technical intelligence for security operations. They will be operated from the ground by air force personnel.

Over the past two years, the Maoists have consolidated their positions, especially in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar and Jharkhand’s Saranda forest. Local police and paramilitary forces’ biggest hurdle to moving in and engaging the rebels has been lack of surveillance.

In the light of poor intelligence from the ground informers real and imagined are brutally killed by the Maoists technical intelligence was the only resort.

“Since we want good, real-time imagery, these planes will fly low,” a source said. Besides, the cloudy monsoon weather too will compel low flights.

The Herons, capable of flying at up to 30,000 feet and for distances up to 800km to and fro, will travel at speeds between 80 and 200 knots (150-370kmph). The payload will include electro-optical and thermal surveillance equipment, radars for ground surveillance, and day and night surveillance turrets.

Mi-17 boost

In October, six hired Mi-17 helicopters will be added to the anti-Maoist arsenal, which already has six air force choppers that are used by several rebel-hit states for search, rescue and troop transport.

The Union home ministry will “wet-lease” these Mi-17s from a consortium of two companies, India’s Global Vectra and Russia’s Utair, which means the private operator will provide the pilots and engineers besides maintaining the aircraft and spending on fuel. The Centre and state governments are looking at building adequate heliports across central India.

Bihar, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra will be given one of these Mi-17s each. Bengal, apparently, has not asked for one. “They have not felt the problem yet,” a source said.

The consortium will charge the Union home ministry Rs 3.3 lakh per hour of flight, far more than the Rs 2.1 lakh per hour the air force charges for its Mi-8s and Mi-17s. However, the air force faces a shortage of choppers.

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