TALLINN – The Estonian Center for Defense Investments on Friday signed an agreement with representatives from Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Latvia and Spain for the development of Modular Unmanned Ground Systems (MUGS) with funding to be sought from the European Defense Fund (EDF).
Participating countries are planning to use a total of 30.6 million euros in funds from the EDF, to which the countries will add their co-funding. The first system prototype will be demonstrated in 2021.
The lead country for the project is Estonia. One of the parties to the consortium is Estonian company Milrem Robotics, developer of THeMIS unmanned ground vehicles.
"We reached an agreement on military operational requirements for unmanned ground vehicles. This is a result of one and half years and thousands of man-hours of negotiations. The ambition is no less than developing a F16 of unmanned ground systems," said Kusti Salm, director general of the Estonian Center for Defense Investments.
Salm emphasized that the requirements for unmanned systems operating on the battlefield are much higher than for civilian autonomous vehicles traveling on a highway.
"Troop safety is one of the priorities in developing unmanned vehicles," said Salm, adding that the development of such a system presents developers with ample technological challenges.
"In order to win the trust of soldiers, the system must be tested in different environmental conditions while carrying out combat missions. Keeping in mind the rapid development of technology, this will definitely not be the last project, with the plan being to continue developing the system in the future within the framework of follow-up projects," he said.
An unmanned ground vehicle, along with a command and control system, cyber defense solution and integrated network of sensors, will be developed within the framework of the project. The system's initial operational functions are associated with improving situational awareness on the battlefield and raising the level of efficiency of the maneuvering and transportation capabilities of units.
The development project for Unmanned Ground Systems is one of the PESCO (EU Permanent Structured Cooperation) initiatives confirmed by EU ministers of defense in 2018. In order to bring the project to life, funding is being applied for from the European Defense Industrial Development Program (EDIDP). In order for the project to be financed, the application must make its way through the assessment of project proposals by the EU Commission's independent experts.
"An unmanned vehicle must be a reliable companion to a soldier on the battlefield, helping them to make decisions faster, reduce the load to be carried and a step change in increasing the endurance and protection of the troops," said Salm. He added that true innovation emerges from the autonomous control system and cooperation with sensors and other manned and unmanned platforms, such as UAVs, radars, and control points.
"What makes the MUGS project a front-runner in the EDIDP competition is the commitment of seven member states and unmatched industrial partnership across Europe," said Salm.
"This is one of the most ambitious projects in the PESCO and EDIDP work program, with the ministers of defense from participating countries and the defense industry having spent many years preparing it. We have the best partners in Europe to help us bring the project to life, in cooperation with whom we have created a very solid foundation for creating European standards in the area of unmanned ground vehicles," the director general of the Estonian Center for Defense Investments added.
As part of preparations for the project, the Estonian Military Academy conducted a research and development project in increasing the combat capability of tactical level units of unmanned systems. The project was implemented in collaboration with a nine-strong consortium of Estonian defense industry companies. At the moment the capabilities of unmanned systems are being tested by the Estonian military unit serving in an international operation in Mali.