In 2008, Ankit Mehta and friends watched in horror as the Mumbai terror attacks played out on live television. The mass killing and plight of hundreds trapped inside hotels and the Jewish Chabad house spurred the team to develop unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones, to assist security forces during hostage situations.
Now, more than a decade later, their company, ideaForge, has bagged a $20 million contract from the Indian Army to supply high-altitude drones. Their company was the only one that met the operations requirements of the Indian Army.
Mehta is the co-founder and CEO of ideaForge. The other three co-founders are Rahul Singh, VP, Engineering; Ashish Bhat, VP, R&D; and Vipul Joshi, VP, Operations.
Back in 2008, Mehta, Singh and Bhat, all IIT-Bombay graduates, had been working on drone technology for fun. The 26/11 attacks, however, helped them focus their efforts. In no time, they prepared a prototype for an unmanned drone, giving the world a glimpse of their creation in the critically acclaimed movie 3 Idiots, in 2009.
Since then there has been no looking back. ideaForge, has signed numerous contracts with security agencies and defence forces, culminating with the recent, $20-million deal with the Indian Army for high-altitude drones.
Born and brought up in Jodhpur, Mehta’s family runs a business printing on export quality fabrics. In an interaction with Moneycontrol, he spoke about the decision to cater to sectors such as defence and security, about investor interest as well as the challenges in the Indian ecosystem. Edited Excerpts:
Tell us how you bagged the $20 million deal with the Indian Army.
With the requirement for high-altitude surveillance heating up, the Indian Army fast-tracked the procurement of drones to ensure that our troops have real-time on-ground situational awareness. About a dozen domestic and international companies participated in the product trials organised by the Army. The trials lasted for three months and were conducted in the toughest of weather conditions and terrain, which tested the systems to their limits.
Ultimately, it was our SWITCH UAV that met all the operational requirements of the Indian Army and in fact, surpassed expectations. We have a best-in-class flight time of over 120 minutes and an operational range of 15 km. It is man-portable and has the highest time on target compared to any other UAV in its class.
Tell us about some of the features of your UAV.
It is a fully indigenously built system and features a fixed wing VTOL (Vertical Takeoff and Landing) hybrid configuration for terrain-independent deployment. Its robust build, 25x optical zoom and ability to operate at an altitude of 4,500 metres along with its class-leading flight time and range make it best-suited for day and night surveillance in Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions.
Take us back to the very beginning. How did it all start for you?
We were developing the base technology from 2004 till 2008 but the turning point was the 2008 Mumbai attack. We were working on a technology that could have been useful in that scenario, given that there was lack of visibility from the ground level into the buildings. A drone at the site could have helped to help these hostages. But we didn’t have the tech ready at that time. However, it gave us the necessary direction. And we just started building these products for security and surveillance applications.
In 2009, we launched India’s first fully autonomous drone. And you also saw an early prototype of ours in the movie 3 Idiots. It wasn’t the exact prototype that we launched as a product but an early prototype of ours because that was the need in the movie. We also launched our first fully autonomous drone in India, a quadcopter (with four rotors).
Since then we have been delivering these drones to various armed forces in the country, be it defence, be it homeland security besides State police for recurring surveillance applications. We also partnered with the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) to get the first set of our systems inducted in various processes. And we have started delivering these products for mapping applications as well to carry out survey-grade mapping. We are able to deliver drones for the SVAMITVA scheme, wherein we are required to map all the 650,000 villages in the country and give property cards to families.
Drones can be used for so many other things. Why did you choose the defence and security sector?
So, think about it. In 2008 the Mumbai attack happened. At that time drones were not even common knowledge even though we were building them since 2004. So, when we started, there was nothing like this. In fact, I can safely say that the consciousness of the country emerged around drones after the movie in that one scene. After that, for the first time, the market actually got introduced to the concept of a drone. And from the point of view of use cases at that time, security and surveillance were the need of the hour because we had just had the Mumbai attacks. And we wanted to create something that is useful. And at that time, nobody had any vision of what to do with these systems. So, that is basically the brief history of why we started in this.
You come from a conventional background. Why did you plunge into the startup space?
So, when we were students we had done so much technology work, unlike what is usual, typically progression to any engineering college where you are focused on coursework and all the extracurricular activities. For us the extracurricular activities were actually technology. So, we had participated in umpteen competitions. We even represented India in one of these competitions. And so we had done a lot of technology activity as a team. In fact, the idea of the drone was an idea that was pretty unique at that time, that we decided we will develop.
Technology was something in our DNA, and then it reflected in our journeys. It was very clear that it is not a privilege that anyone else has, to get invested in it as much as we have been invested in, to work on our own ideas, to get this freedom and confidence that you can develop any technology.
Did you reach out to the defence or police authorities?
We did. One of our first customers was the police force. In 2010, we made the first case for a fully integrated drone. That was to one of the State police forces. I can’t disclose the details since they are not in the public domain. Thereafter, we delivered umpteen projects to the defence forces, and have delivered close to a thousand plus drones to various customers already. For security, surveillance and mapping applications. Close to half of the systems we have delivered have been to the defence forces.
ideaForge has a long history of working with India’s defence and homeland security forces. The knowledge and experience gained so far has enabled us to develop products that cater to the most demanding requirements of the armed forces.
Was there just a sense of nationalism that prompted you to get into the defence sector? What about the commercial aspect?
Honestly for us, it was about solving problems, which were relevant. But ultimately your business has to be sustainable. I have a very simple philosophy: you need to be commercially viable because you want to continue developing more and more technology.
Defence is a very niche segment. What has been your experience so far and how do you see entrepreneurship in this area growing?
So, first of all, I think we don’t look at defence as the only customer. We deliver to defence, we deliver to homeland security and we deliver to large enterprises. Now, defence is a unique business; it has its own challenges, but it has its own advantages as well. Your money may get delayed but it’s secure. You will be looking at opportunities that come in a chunk, but when the chunk happens, it’s a massive chunk. It is a relatively secure business in terms of the government being the customer.
The company raised an external round of funding sometime in 2016. Are you in talks to raise an external round as of now? How are venture capital firms looking at this sector?
We are always on the lookout for investors who are like-minded. Who want to leverage this unprecedented opportunity which the drone industry today presents anybody. This is the best time to actually go behind this industry and we are open to speak to investors who are like-minded.
So, currently what is the status? How are investors responding?
It is very early. But in one sense we just closed this deal with the defence forces.
But this is more like a commercial agreement and not an investment?
Exactly. And that’s why it (the contract with the Indian Army) is such a transformative deal, because it makes the opportunity here. Drones have a very high potential opportunity for a really long time. It is early days, but there is (investor) interest. We will get to know a lot more about the depth of that interest in the next few weeks.
What are the challenges an entrepreneur faces while setting up a startup in this segment? What can be done by the government to ensure ease of doing business?
One of the areas that could be better in general for high-tech areas is the procurement process… While our systems are tuned towards very high efficiency of utilisation of public money, we are not cognisant of the efficacy of that expense… the factor of time impact. Efficiency is not just the factor of the cheapest price for a technology but also about whether you bought it in time or not.