India's National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) are not easy to find. Located on the same road as Hindustan Aeronautics just outside Bangalore, the complex has a nondescript steel gate that sits well back from the road and is marked with a small sign.
Beyond lies a large campus of buildings interspersed with overgrown parkland and large, gloomy trees that overshadow the road. Half a dozen rifle-armed guards man a ramshackle security office, where visitors must surrender their mobile phones in return for a pass.
Despite its bucolic location, NAL is at the forefront of India's aviation sector, second only to HAL. It is also the cradle of the country's regional commercial aircraft ambitions. NAL's focus is primarily commercial - although technologies developed there have been used in military aircraft, such as the indigenously developed Tejas light combat aircraft.
© National Aerospace Laboratories
NAL is hoping to leap into the regional aircraft market with one of its RTA-70 concepts
NAL's mandate is: "To develop aerospace technologies with a strong science content, design and build small and medium-sized civil aircraft, and support all national aerospace programmes."
Founded in 1959, NAL has more than a dozen laboratories. Areas of focus range from avionics to testing and repairing aerospace structures. The labs helped with initial studies on the Gas Turbine Research Establishment's Kaveri engine - the long-delayed, indigenous powerplant intended for the Tejas.
Every indigenous Indian aerospace vehicle has been tested in NAL's aerospace windtunnel. It is also the body responsible for carrying out aircraft failure analyses and accident investigations. Over the years, it has investigated more than 1,100 cases.
Although its aircraft development ambitions are at an early stage, NAL hopes it will soon make a leap into the crowded regional aircraft market with a regional transport aircraft, the RTA-70. NAL's Hansa-3 single-engined light aircraft is India's first all-composite aircraft. Intended primarily to replace older aircraft at India's flying clubs, the Hansa-3 is being co-produced with private company Taneja Aerospace & Aviation.
NAL has also led development of the Saras, a 14-seat multi-role transport aircraft designed primarily for the military. It is working with another private-sector firm, Mahindra Aerospace, on the NM5-100, a five-seater turboprop aimed at air taxi, training, tourism and medevac roles.
Despite the issues with Saras, NAL is contemplating a far more ambitious project with the RTA-70. Although it was envisaged as a turboprop aircraft, NAL now says the RTA-70 could be powered by turbofan engines, with the government viewing the aircraft as a stepping stone to larger models. NAL is studying the two options, and will deliver a report to the government in April 2011, after which a decision will be made.
"The government asked us to look at the turbofan option, and after we conduct a feasibility study, we will decide," says NAL director A R Upadhya. "Previously we were focusing only on a high-wing turboprop design. If all goes well, by the end of 2011 we will have full go-ahead to create the aircraft."
NAL has been in talks with a number of jet engine manufacturers, including Pratt & Whitney, Rolls-Royce, Snecma and General Electric. It says all have shown interest in the project.
"Initially, we were only looking at the turboprop option because of the high price of fuel," says Upadhya. "Lifecycle costs were our key concern. The government then asked us to look at the turbofan option, because they see it as a stepping stone to the high end."
NAL expects demand for regional aircraft in India to reach 250 by 2025. This is driven by the wealthy Indian middle class and its demand for flights on low-cost carriers. Also, industries are moving into India's smaller cities, increasing the viability of regional flights to such destinations. NAL also sees possible demand for 150 military variants to replace the Indian air force's Antonov An-32 fleet.
Irrespective of the RTA-70's powerplant, it is likely to come in two variants: a shorter one with 70-90 seats and a longer one with 80-100 seats. Its range will be 1,350nm (2,500km), suitable for most long sectors in India. Avionics are likely to be produced locally, including an indigenous fly-by-wire control system to save weight. Upadhya estimates the aircraft could be in service as soon as 2017, and that NAL is open to international and local partners. The aircraft would be produced by HAL.
If India produced the RTA-70 as a jet, it would join the increasingly crowded field of 50- to 100-seat regionals. Rivals would include Embraer's E-Jets, Bombardier's CSeries, Comac's ARJ21 and Sukhoi's Superjet.
A SCEPTICAL VIEW
Nidhi Goyal, director of aerospace and defence at Deloitte India, is sceptical about the project, but thinks the Indian government will push it to its conclusion. Most of the aircraft's sales are likely to be to state-owned Air India, however. "It will take a very long time for this project to be realised," says Goyal.
This is a view shared by Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia, who compares the RTA-70 to other "national planes" such as the ARJ21, or the N-250, a commuter aircraft developed by Indonesian Aerospace in the early 1990s.
While the ARJ21's thin orderbook is populated by a few Chinese carriers and one in Laos, the N-250 failed altogether after the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s. Aboulafia says regional jets tend to suffer the most from high fuel costs, which could make the RTA-70 uneconomical, and that the government will need to effectively pay airlines to use it, probably through subsidised purchase costs.
"There is no worse market than regional aircraft," says Aboulafia, who notes that although there were rosy projections for regional aircraft in China 10 years ago, fewer than 100 such aircraft are flying there today. "Telling a national airline what it can or cannot buy is the worst way to run a business," he adds.
Of course, the RTA-70 is a long way from becoming a reality, although India's interest in indigenous aircraft makes it all but certain that the aircraft will fly one day. The key question is one of economics: can airlines with razor-thin margins make money with it?
SARAS: A TROUBLED HISTORY
The Saras programme has had an extremely difficult gestation, perhaps signalling a tough road ahead for the RTA-70. It started as an Indo-Russian joint venture in 1986, but Ilyushin pulled out because of a lack of funds.
After India's 1998 nuclear tests, there was an 18-month stoppage because of a US probe into potential military applications for the aircraft's US-manufactured propellers and avionics. The production Saras will be powered by two rear-mounted Pratt & Whitney PT6A-67A turboprops.
© National Aerospace Laboratories
Saras made its first flight 18 years after its inception
Saras made its first flight in 2004, 18 years after the programme's inception, but in the following years NAL struggled to reduce the aircraft's weight, making progress by introducing composite tails and wings and reducing the number of bulkheads in the aircraft's No 3 prototype.
On 6 March 2009, Saras suffered a major setback when the No 2 prototype of the push-prop aircraft crashed outside Bangalore, killing all three crew members. Indian investigators believe the military test pilots had been trying to relight an engine with insufficient recovery altitude moments before the aircraft crashed. Although pilot error seems to have been the main factor, the incident delayed the programme.
NAL says a replacement for the second prototype is likely to be ready in 2011, with a glass cockpit and further use of composites.