EU firms join gold rush on drones

17.02.12 @ 09:16

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - EU firms have joined the gold rush on military and civilian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). But ethical and legal questions dog the technology.

  • The Neuron. 'Thank God that intelligence services in Europe don't have enough money to run their own weapons programmes' (Photo: dassault-aviation.com)

The global UAV market is worth $6 billion (€4.6bn) a year and will hit $12 billion by 2018, according to US forecaster Teal Group.

It is not a real market. Currently, military-industrial complexes in China, Israel, the EU, Russia and the US make drones for their armed forces and sell them to close allies only. Almost half the spending is government research.

But with big money at stake, some analysts predict rapid proliferation.

"China has made a copy of the predator - the pterodactyl. It's identified a hole in the market for attack UAVs and it plans to sell more widely. This will force everyone to sell more widely ... I've traced 51 countries which are interested in acquiring this kind of technology, but I'm sure there are more out there," Noel Sharkey - a British robotics professor who advises the military - told EUobserver.

The predator is notorious for CIA officers who sit in Langley, Virginia and launch rockets at people in Pakistan with no judicial or congressional oversight.

The next step on the military side is combat drones (Ucavs) which can fly in "dirty" theatres of conflict - places with decent anti-aircraft defences. Another step is autonomy - drones which fire weapons based on algorithms because the human operator is too slow or cut off by electronic jamming.

One future Ucav is the Darpa Falcon - the US says it will fly at 21,000 km-per-hour and hit a target anywhere on the planet within 30 minutes of take off. Israel's Harpy already works by hovering in the air and sniffing out radar signals. If it senses one, it cross-checks a database of friendly radars then fires autonomously - even if the enemy radar is sitting on a school or hospital.

On the civilian side, British police will use UAVs to observe crowds in the 2012 Olympics, while EU border control agency, Frontex, on 9 February test-flew an Israeli-made surveillance drone in Greece, the main entry-point for asylum seekers.

Gunnar Holmberg, a researcher at Swedish arms firm Saab, noted that microchips are getting so light police could one day fly nano-drones inside buildings. "It's free for the imagination," he said, in terms of UAV markets.

Sarkozy's euro-drone

Teal Group notes that US companies last year built about 1,800 drones out of the 2,600 made worldwide. European firms made 200. But almost all the big EU arms companies are building prototypes to meet future demand.

The Neuron - a "euro-Ucav" being made by France, Greece, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland - will in April do its first test drive on the tarmac. France's Nicolas Sarkozy and the UK's David Cameron in Paris on Friday (17 February) will, among other things, reveal details on Telemos, their joint effort to make a next-generation predator, designed to fly in 2018.

The main problem holding back civilian sales is how to make sure UAVs do not bump into normal planes.

As things stand, nobody from the European Defence Agency or from the European Commission, which have been tasked with drafting laws on how to share civilian airspace, can give a ball-park date for when they will be ready.

Another problem is that people care about their privacy.

Tony Henley, an industry consultant, told this website: "One minute a UAV is taking pictures of crops. But what if your wife is sunbathing topless in her garden close by? Who will protect her?" The head of research at Frontex, Edgar Beugels, said he is unsure if UAVs will patrol the sky in his lifetime. "But if they do, you probably won't see them," he added.

The military questions are more acute.

Sharkey has attracted ridicule for saying autonomous attack drones should be regulated by an international treaty - like chemical weapons or cluster bombs - because they kill people indiscriminately.

The Pope and the crossbow

Industrialists, such as Yves Robbins, in charge of marketing the Neuron on behalf of French firm Dassault, puts the concerns down to fear of novelty. "When they invented the crossbow, the Pope said he would excommunicate any warrior that uses it because it's too barbaric. You get this when a new weapon comes along," he told EUobserver.

When asked what he thinks of Sharkey's idea, Saab CEO Hakan Buskhe - whose firm is making Neuron's autonomous systems or "brains" - wrote back: "The MTCR regime already exists (The Missile Technology Control Regime), which is an association of countries that share the goals of non-proliferation on unmanned delivery systems consisting of 34 countries."

The MTCR is not legally binding and only covers UAVs which carry 500kg or more of munitions - a class which excludes anything on sale today.

Speaking privately, some people working on Neuron do have mixed emotions.

"I would say thank God that intelligence services in Europe don't have enough money to run their own weapons programmes," an industry contact said, referring to the CIA's targeted assassinations. "I don't think our politicians will let us build drones that fire by themselves," he added.

This story was altered on 17 February. The original incorrectly said the CIA operated drones out of Nevada