Published on Le Marin, June 2017
Within the French Navy that has lost some of its muscle over the years and that sometimes has a hard time recruiting, robots are a seductive response. But while the French Navy was a pioneer in the use of underwater robots for mine-sweeping with ECA’s self-propelled ROV (PAP), it relegated this technology to a position of secondary importance.
It was only very recently, spurred on by the French Armed Forces and Defense Procurement Agency (DGA) with a core of engineers obsessed by robotics, that the idea of using automated devices to carry out combat missions resurfaced.
This led to the French maritime mine counter-measures (MMCM) contract being awarded to a consortium in March 2015. This consortium is in charge of designing a naval drone system to replace the mine-sweepers currently deployed in both the French and Royal Navies. Two prototypes are scheduled for delivery in 2019 for evaluation. If sailors still remain in the loop, they will no longer be exposed to danger while they remain in command from behind their screens.
The DCNS Group also demonstrated in April that it was now technologically possible to integrate the use of unmanned surface, aerial, and underwater vehicles in a single mission for the protection of a military (or civilian) port. This enables the automation of routine tasks that prove to sometimes be demotivating for the men and women that perform them.
In Toulon, clearance divers from the French Navy prepare to launch an Alister 9-AUV manufactured by ECA.
Finally, the use of unmanned combat vehicles on board aircraft carriers is no longer a technological dream. Even if the French Navy has just, being only a dozen years late, switched completely to Rafale fighter planes
Autonomous vehicles are already the heroes of the upcoming summer universities of the French Ministry of the Armed Services that will take place in Toulon this September. An entire workshop will be dedicated to them. The new, freshly-elected members of French Parliament will be able to become familiar with the French capabilities in this area… and assess its dire condition.
ECA is already the leader in inexpensive solutions, filled to the brim with technology, that the group from southeastern France succeeded in selling abroad by self-financing its research and development since it wasn’t eligible for a single public contract in France. But its success abroad comes at a cost since the group must participate in professional tradeshows at an infernal rate of one event per week.
With additional means, Thales and DCNS have not always believed in unmanned vehicles, waiting to receive public funding, in vain. They finally crossed the Rubicon, seeing the indecent success of ECA, but only to offer an unmanned vehicle that looks almost the same: a sniffer that looks like a torpedo and hoists a periscope-type mast filled with sensors.
ECA’s Alister 9-AUV autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) is used to detect, classify and localize mines that are up to 100 meters deep.
An aircraft manufacturer since before World War II, ECA Group surfed the wave of dissuasion robotics in the 1960s. This is what led them to develop its self-propelled ROV (PAP) and a series of unmanned vehicles with each one being more bizarre looking than another.
Having anticipated the evolving trends, and thanks to the flexibility of this mid-sized company’s structure, ECA developed a multi-drone system that operates in a swarm.
Today, the group from southeastern France is the only French company who’s catalog offers the complete range of unmanned vehicles: unmanned aerial vehicles (thanks to its purchase of the company Infotron) as well as surface, underwater and land-based unmanned vehicles. ECA therefore has, in fact, a significant lead in tomorrow’s complex architectures that will combine the best of each model.
Its range of naval solutions includes unmanned vehicles designed for detection, surveillance and intelligence missions ( AUV A9-M, A18-M and A27-M, and SEASCAN Mk2), as well as the K-STER that destroys explosive devices. The company has also developed a multi-drone system, the Inspector Mk2, that has already been deployed by its first customers.