Tuesday

17th Oct 2017

EU firms join gold rush on drones

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

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.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

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

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

Nato admits civilian casualties in Libya

Nato has admitted its first major airstrike blunder causing civilian casualties in the four-month long Libyan campaign against Moammar Gaddafi.

EU arms trade booming despite crisis

Firms in the UK, France, Italy, Sweden, Germany, Spain and Europe's own European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company made around €75 billion from selling weapons in 2010.

'Killer robots' are not about Terminator

A European signatory of an open letter about autonomous weapons says the imagery of fictional killer robots is distracting from a seriously dangerous issue.

News in Brief

  1. EU to keep 'Dieselgate' letter secret
  2. No deal yet on Mediterranean alliance for EU agencies
  3. EU Commission condemns Maltese journalist's murder
  4. Poland denies wrongdoing over forest logging
  5. Risk to asylum kids in EU increasing, says charity
  6. Schroeder warns of Turkey and Russia drifting towards China
  7. EU parliament wants equal pay for posted workers
  8. Catalan independence leaders taken into custody

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EU2017EENorth Korea Leaves Europe No Choice, Says Estonian Foreign Minister Sven Mikser
  2. Mission of China to the EUZhang Ming Appointed New Ambassador of the Mission of China to the EU
  3. International Partnership for Human RightsEU Should Seek Concrete Commitments From Azerbaijan at Human Rights Dialogue
  4. European Jewish CongressEJC Calls for New Austrian Government to Exclude Extremist Freedom Party
  5. CES - Silicones EuropeIn Healthcare, Silicones Are the Frontrunner. And That's a Good Thing!
  6. EU2017EEEuropean Space Week 2017 in Tallinn from November 3-9. Register Now!
  7. European Entrepreneurs CEA-PMEMobiliseSME Exchange Programme Open Doors for 400 Companies Across Europe
  8. CECEE-Privacy Regulation – Hands off M2M Communication!
  9. ILGA-EuropeHealth4LGBTI: Reducing Health Inequalities Experienced by LGBTI People
  10. EU2017EEEHealth: A Tool for More Equal Health
  11. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Tourism a Key Driver for Job Creation and Enhanced Competitiveness
  12. CECENon-Harmonised Homologation of Mobile Machinery Costs € 90 Million per Year

Latest News

  1. Nepal troops arrive in Libya to guard UN refugee agency
  2. Is Banking Authority HQ the Brexit 'booby prize'?
  3. EU-Russia trade bouncing back - despite sanctions
  4. No sign of Brexit speed-up after May-Juncker dinner
  5. EU defence strategy 'outsourced' to arms industry
  6. EU privacy rules tilt to industry, NGO says
  7. Malta in shock after car bomb kills crusading journalist
  8. Spanish and Catalan leaders continue stand-off

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. ILGA-EuropeMass Detention of Azeri LGBTI People - the LGBTI Community Urgently Needs Your Support
  2. European Free AllianceCatalans Have Won the Right to Have an Independent State
  3. ECR GroupBrexit: Delaying the Start of Negotiations Is Not a Solution
  4. EU2017EEPM Ratas in Poland: "We Enjoy the Fruits of European Cooperation Thanks to Solidarity"
  5. Mission of China to the EUChina and UK Discuss Deepening of Global Comprehensive Strategic Partnership
  6. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceEHLA Joins Commissioners Navracsics, Andriukaitis and Hogan at EU Week of Sport
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council Representative Office Opens in Brussels to Foster Better Cooperation
  8. UNICEFSocial Protection in the Contexts of Fragility & Forced Displacement
  9. CESIJoin CESI@Noon on October 18 and Debate On: 'European Defence Union: What Next?'
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Innovation House Opens in New York to Support Start-Ups
  11. ILGA EuropeInternational Attention Must Focus on LGBTI People in Azerbaijan After Police Raids
  12. European Jewish CongressStrong Results of Far Right AfD Party a Great Concern for Germans and European Jews