A picturesque village with green paddy fields and swaying coconut trees seems far removed from the world of deep tech hardware and startups. But Pattimattom in Kerala’s Kunnathunadu panchayat is the home of EyeROV Technologies, which makes underwater drones. The drones swoop into waters too dangerous for divers, inspect what lies beneath, and report back in detail.

The rover can spot a crack in a dam 30 meters underwater or live stream corrosion in pipelines transporting oil. Data analytics and visualization help make timely decisions based on what the drones record. Soldiers sometimes have to cross treacherous rivers in a hostile environment. The waters are often ice-cold, currents strong, and visibility near nil. An underwater drone could go in first and tell the troops what to expect.

EyeROV and 11 other startups are part of a new initiative for defence innovation at the Forge incubator in Coimbatore. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) was the first to use EyeROV’s drone at its Naval Physical and Oceanographic Laboratory to conduct underwater experiments in December 2017. EyeROV’s founders, IITians Johns T. Mathai and Kannappa Palaniappan P., had pitched their months-old product to a group of DRDO scientists and it was chosen over competitors from around the world.

“The feedback from DRDO was crucial,” Mathai recalls. The scientists wanted the drone to carry a 2kg payload. This helped later when EyeROV took its drone to Bharat Petroleum, Mumbai Port Trust, coastal police and dam operators last year.

The Defence Innovation Organisation—a not-for-profit company formed by public sector undertakings—got the army, navy and air force to come up with 11 requirements to kick off iDEX. These included unmanned underwater and airborne vehicles, see-through armour, body protection systems and new materials. It threw the challenge open to innovators.

Forge is working with 12 of the 44 innovators who won the initial grant from iDEX. A few, like EyeROV, have a product in the market. Others have backers besides iDEX and are working on multiple products.

An unlikely inclusion is a pair of aerospace engineering students: Akash Jayakumar and Akash Vineet. They had a recycling startup, R-Cube Plastics, and had no hope of winning when they applied to the iDEX challenge to build individual protection systems with built-in sensors.

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