India’s sole aircraft manufacturer, state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL), is gaining expertise in building UAVs through partnerships with overseas companies.HAL has established, on an equity-sharing basis, a joint partnership with Elbit to manufacture simulators and avionics for the Israeli firm’s Skylark mini UAVs. The venture will help HAL develop a mini UAV of its own, a company official said.Bangalore-based HAL holds 50 percent of the joint venture — HALBIT Avionics — with Elbit holding 26 percent and Merlinhawk, a Bangalore consultancy, holding 24 percent, a HAL executive said. An order for unspecified numbers of simulators and avionics has been placed with the new company, the executive said, but further details about the deal were not disclosed. The Skylark mini UAVs have been ordered for the Israeli defense forces, but details were not available.The Skylark could even see action with the defense forces here. A Ministry of Defense official said the Army may buy an unspecified number of mini UAVs, and a request for proposals is likely by the end of this year or in early 2008.The HAL executive said HALBIT will develop training and simulation systems such as “full mission systems, computer-based trainers, maintenance simulators, virtual training and other airborne avionics.” The executive also said the company has begun work on the structure of its own mini UAV, with full UAV integration expected by mid-2008. Each UAV will cost between $25,000 and $30,000, he said. An Army official said that a Skylark-type UAV is required for surveillance in the north of Kashmir to fight Muslim terrorists. It can be assembled quickly before a mission and is launched by hand, which the official said is suitable for the rugged terrain in Jammu and Kashmir.Partnerships are KeyHAL is counting on partnerships like the one with Elbit to increase its annual sales from the current level of more than $1.75 billion to $3 billion in the next five years. Several overseas companies have partnered with HAL to tap the growing defense offset market in India, estimated by the Defence Ministry at about $1.5 billion each year.Last year, Pratt amp; Whitney and HAL agreed to set up an engine component manufacturing facility in India, which is currently being constructed. In November, HAL and Bell Helicopter inked a memorandum of understanding to explore possible cooperation on airframe subassemblies and product support for the civil helicopter market.In September 2006, HAL and EADS agreed to cooperate on defense aerospace products and are formulating business plans. The Indian company also signed an agreement with Israel Aerospace Industries to do aero structure assembly, including tooling, design and manufacture in Bangalore

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