Saturday, November 12, 2011

Airplanes: Made in India. (with video)

New Delhi: With demand steadily increasing for cheap flights between small towns in India, the country is trying to make its own passenger planes. Designed in India and made in Australia, the CNM5 is the first Indian plane jointly developed by CSIR-NAL, a government lab and Mahindra Aerospace, a private company.

It can fly five people or serve as an air ambulance or goods carrier. You could buy one for about two crore. "We can connect our North East. We can connect Jorhat to Silchar. Silchar to Agarthala. We can go across Brahmaputra. We can go to Andaman Nicobar. We can really make a big difference to the country. Specially to transport light goods, 500-600 kg of material. And the maintenance cost of this aircraft will not be too much," said Dr Samir Kumar Brahmachari, Director-General, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, CSIR.

Another is the SARAS. Originally designed as a fourteen seat civilian passenger plane, it flew first in 2004 and hundreds of times after that. But a crash in 2009 killed all three crew members and almost grounded the project. According to Dr Shyam Chetty, Director, National Aerospace Laboratories, NAL, "The committee which investigated the 2009 crash has ruled out any technical defects or shortcomings. It is just a matter of time before the plane is back in the air." A new SARAS prototype will be ready late next year and the plane is to start commercial production in 2014. But this time, it will serve the military. The Indian Air Force wants fifteen planes, to train their transport pilots.

Our air force pilots have to use big aircraft for training straight away. Whereas this will be the first small transport aircraft training that they can use. So, there is an immediate use for them, said Brahmachari.

A separate ninety-seater regional transport aircraft for civilians is currently being designed. It will cost more than seven thousand crore rupees to perfect and is to be made in collaboration with private industry. "We are entering a space which is already crowded, where giants exist. However, India, with 1.2 billion people who would like to move, it is important that we have an indigenous industry. How do we make it fuel efficient, least carbon footprint, how can we make it run on a shorter runway - these are the challenges we are trying to design for," added Brahmachari.

Chetty believes that one thing India has, which others don't have to a large extent, is software. All modern aircraft are software intensive. Today, a lot of software for India and abroad, is being developed in the country. It is possible that we will be able to leverage these skills to develop a cost effective aircraft.

But made in India won't always mean cheap. The SARAS in its civilian avatar cost almost 40 crore per plane when comparable foreign machines cost 12-26 crore. While both China and Indonesia made regional transport jets ten years ago, they guzzled fuel and failed because of rising fuel costs. 

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