The UDAN Regional Connectivity Scheme was launched in 2017 to provide low-cost aerial public transport, especially in India’s hinterland and thereby boost the rural and semi-urban economies.
In the past year since its inception, UDAN has made substantial progress: it has revived defunct and under-utilised airports in Tier-2 and Tier-3 Indian cities; created a domestic market for made-in-India aircraft; and done away with the wasteful deployment of aircraft with large passenger-carrying capacities on sparsely populated routes. Subsequent phases will see the use of vertical-take-off-and-landing (VTOL) platforms, such as helicopters, and short-take-off-and-landing (STOL) conventional and amphibious aircraft, on terrain where large aircraft cannot be operated. UDAN will thus help take aviation connectivity to India’s many inaccessible regions.
Such achievements notwithstanding, a comprehensive national transportation policy can enable the focus to be on next-generation technology the way it is in the United States, Europe and China. There is need for such a policy because the characteristics of transportation are changing rapidly as also the industries associated with it. Factors, such as deep decarbonisation of the power sector, point-to-point transport, autonomous navigation, artificial intelligence, and cyber-physical systems – or the use of IT to enhance performance – did not exist in earlier transportation arrangements. These are slowly beginning to churn a new wave of strategically emerging industries. A transportation policy could strengthen the foundation of such industries, help achieve national environmental targets, and contribute to India’s growth indices.
This may sound lofty and futuristic at a time when many challenges continue to beleaguer India’s aerospace sector. But UDAN, by being a catalyst for transformation, has demonstrated in a short span of time its growth potential. Under its aegis, component manufacturing, maintenance-repair-overhaul units, and technology start-ups, are projected to gain business in aerospace SEZs in India. The 14-seater National Aeronautics Limited SARAS aircraft and 19-seater, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited’s Dornier-228-201 aircraft for civilian transport are expected to enter the fleet of the UDAN-enabled regional aviation sector.
These are uplifting developments, but India’s commercial aircraft manufacturers, who are newcomers to the business, are up against several well-established global competitors, who may find it expedient to enter into strategic alliances and joint ventures with them.
The other purported challenge to India’s domestic aviation market is the concurrent growth of high-speed rail networks between urban and semi-urban corridors. Japan, the United States, and several European countries have demonstrated successful intermodal co-operation, with rail acting as rapid passenger disperser and feeder to the hub and smaller airports too. New Delhi can similarly evolve an air-rail alliance between the Indian Railways and domestic airlines to transform any likely competition into cooperation.
The third and most felt challenge is the absence of a transportation policy that actively incorporates futuristic technology: such technology is being adopted globally. As cities grow into mega-urban regions, there is growing demand for faster, cleaner, and intuitive point-to-point transportation. While the concept of a ‘personal aerial vehicle’ and ‘passenger drones’ has existed for decades, the technology ecosystem needed for their realisation has begun to evolve only in the past few years. These ecosystems consist of strategic emerging industries (at start-up and scaling-up developmental stages), dealing with artificial intelligence, novel-materials engineering, Internet-of-Things, autonomous transportation systems, and next-generation vehicles like electric-hybrid engine aircraft, VTOL electric urban aerial vehicles, and logistics delivery drones. These technologies and vehicles are projected to be on the wish lists of on-demand transport firms, logistics firms, law and order agencies, and serve also as objects of personal utility as well.
While the strategic emerging industries are a few years away from securing a mature market, New Delhi needs to appreciate their significance and impact on the economy in the decade to come. In 2016, the State Council of China issued a circular, projecting the contribution of strategic emerging industries to the Chinese gross domestic product increasing from ~8% in 2015 to ~15% by 2020. China, United States, and Europe have been pursuing the R&D of such vehicles as the foundation of strategic emerging industries, and have formally announced their intention to reduce carbon emissions by electrifying air travel and other modes of transportation, and shortening commute times.
The lines between terrestrial and aerial transportation are blurring, and consequently, the emphasis needs to be on innovation and the invention of experimental, disruptive approaches. Aerospace Special Economic Zones (SEZs) need to be nurtured as ecosystems from which such technology can emerge. Equally, they are equipped to serve the demands of both the international and UDAN-enabled domestic markets for current-generation aircraft.
New Delhi therefore needs to formulate a transportation policy that focuses on connectivity and its related economics and environmental impact, but also one that seamlessly integrates the output of the strategic emerging industries to build next-generation transportation systems.
- Press Information Bureau, Cabinet, Government of India, Union Cabinet approves Shyama Prasad Mukherji Rurban Mission to drive economic, social and infrastructure development in rural areas, 16 September 2015, http://pib.nic.in/newsite/printrelease.aspx?relid=126934
- G.L. Mahajan, UDAN to make flights cheaper and spur economic activity, Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Special Service and Feature, 29 April 2017, http://pib.nic.in/newsite/printrelease.aspx?relid=161400
- T.R. Lakshmanan, ‘The broader economic consequences of transport infrastructure investments’, Journal of Transport Geography, Vol. 19, pp. 1-12, January 2011.
- Flight-tests of the 14-seater National Aeronautics Limited SARAS aircraft, which were suspended due to paucity of funds, were revived in 2016.
Anantha Krishnan, ‘Upgraded Saras PT1N all set for maiden flight in January’, Matrubhumi, 26 December 2017, http://www.nal.res.in/cms/admin/uploads/Upgraded%20Saras%
- Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, Do-228-201 Upgraded Civil Aircraft, http://www.hal-india.com/DO-228/M__337
- R. Moser, H.A. von der Gracht, T. Gnatzy, ‘The Indian Aerospace Industry 2019: An analysis of the political, technological and economic conditions’, BrainNet Supply Management Group AG. Wiesbaden, 2010.
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- For example, the venture capital firm of the United States aerospace giant Boeing, HorizonX, launched in 2017, is backing several start-up companies undertaking research and development (R&D) of light-weight ultra-strong materials, autonomous transportation systems, and medium-haul electric aircraft [a]. Across the Atlantic Ocean, the European Space Agency is incubating technology companies, including those involved in the R&D of electric VTOL aircraft [b]. Airbus, the European aerospace giant, is developing the ‘E-Fan X’ hybrid-electric single-aisle passenger aircraft in collaboration with Rolls Royce and Siemens [c].
- S.L. Fuller, ‘10 Significant Aviation Investments, Mergers, Acquisitions in 2017’, Aviation Today, 19 December 2017, http://www.aviationtoday.com/2017/12/19/5-significant-2017-investments-mergers-acquisitions/
Retrieved from the European Space Agency Technology Transfer Programme website http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Engineering_Technology/TTP2/Personal_aircraft_aiming_to_take_off_from_your_home
Retrieved from the Airbus XO website http://airbus-xo.com/e-fan-x-making-electric-flight-cleaner-aviation-reality/
 The State Council, The People’s Republic of China, China issues plan to develop strategic emerging industries, 19 December 2016, http://english.gov.cn/policies/latest_releases/2016/12/19/content_281475520183484.htm
- The White House, Government of The United States, United States Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization, November 2016, https://unfccc.int/files/focus/long-term_strategies/application/pdf/mid_century_strategy_report-final_red.pdf
- Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport, European Commission, Flightpath 2050: Europe’s Vision for Aviation: Maintaining Global Leadership & Serving Society’s Needs, 2011, https://ec.europa.eu/transport/sites/transport/files/modes/air/doc/flightpath2050.pdf