An Indian startup’s “sharp-eye” technology can prevent Uri-like militant attacks

Visionary technology.
Visionary technology.
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Tonbo Imaging is a Bengaluru-based startup that designs, builds and deploys advanced imaging and sensor systems to sense, understand, and control complex military environments.

At 5.30am on Sept. 18, 2016, four militants from across the border in Pakistan sprang a nasty surprise on Indian soil, staging a pre-dawn ambush on an army base in Uri, 6km from the Line of Control (LoC). Seventeen grenades were fired in a matter of minutes. This was followed by an intense gun battle that lasted a whole six hours.

By the end of it, 19 Indian jawans were killed and about 30 were injured in what was termed the deadliest attack on Indian security forces in Kashmir in nearly two and a half decades.

How did the terrorists breach the army’s three-tier counter infiltration security system? It is a mystery that baffled investigators later assigned to probe the strike. Uri also demonstrated emphatically that defending India’s outer military posts, which are increasingly becoming targets for cross-border militants from Pakistan, is a tough job despite its large defense outlays.

But most importantly, the attack raised an important existential question—could such a break-in have been avoided entirely had India’s military establishments housed more advanced security and surveillance systems?

Fortifying military bases

While the Indian army has a long way to go before it can claim to have comprehensively upgraded security infrastructure around high-impact targets such as Uri, it is likely that terrorists seeking to infiltrate these installations in the future will have to face tougher barriers, namely, the technological might of an obscure startup that has been working in close conjunction with the forces to fortify these bases.

The startup in question is Bengaluru-based Tonbo Imaging. Founded in 2008 by BITS Pilani and Carnegie Mellon University alumnus Arvind Lakshmikumar along with his colleagues, Tonbo Imaging was born following a management buyout of Sarnoff Corporation’s India R&D arm where Lakshmikumar worked for three years between 2004 and 2007 upon his return from the US.

Lakshmikumar had acquired experience as a sub-contractor on several highly-classified next-generation military programs with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as well as global defense corporations such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Future Combat Systems. He says that the startup was conceived as an idea that would marry his education in intelligent imaging systems with his rich experience and networks in the defense industry to build sophisticated imaging technology for the forces.

The dragonfly

The name “Tonbo” means dragonfly in Japanese, a fascinating insect with 40,000 eyes, each a miniature sensor-processor in itself. The dragonfly senses data from all these eyes and combines it together to process a final high-resolution image. Its compound structure allows it to perform all kinds of amazing manoeuvres, giving it clear sight through low light conditions and helping it navigate difficult terrain such as narrow tunnels at lightning speeds.

It is this small, yet complex creature that inspired Lakshmikumar and his team to ask: could nature’s sensing and processing capabilities be emulated for imaging systems?

“Nature shows us that multiple eyes are better than one eye. It is why we’ve all been endowed with two. But the monolithic architecture of our cameras has not changed for nearly 200 years. They are still single aperture systems that limit the depth of what you are allowed to see,” explains Lakshmikumar. “At Tonbo Imaging we began a quest to disrupt the fundamental technology in use behind cameras. The question we asked ourselves as we started the company was, could we borrow from biology to build better cameras for the military?”

While incremental improvements had taken place over the years in optics, sensors and image-processing technology used in cameras, they had not really moved the needle much for better navigation in war-like situations where smoke, dust, fog and military camouflage tactics obstructed vision. In order to circumvent these impediments, it was critical to not just make upgrades to existing technology but redefine the way images were captured.

And Tonbo Imaging has done just that.

It manufactures advanced imaging and sensor systems and night vision devices that work in complex environments where navigation is complicated by smoke, fog, and other visual and sensory hindrances. Its vast array of devices fitted with intelligent cameras are appended to guns, drones, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), tanks and other armaments used by the military for reconnaissance in modern battles as well as for commercial applications.

But what is so exceptional about this company, apart from the cutting-edge “nature-inspired technology” it deploys in its cameras, which allows army personnel to navigate challenging conditions? The answer is that it has defied all odds to make a dashing entry into the largely murky, insular world of Indian defense, pushing its way through an opaque ecosystem that is ill-disposed if not openly hostile to startups.

Excerpted with permission from 7 Sutras of Innovation: Stories of Scale-Ups That Are Transforming India by Nikhil Inamdar with Marico Innovation Foundation, published by Jaico Publishing House. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.