Tuesday

25th Jul 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 and get 40% off for an annual subscription. Sale ends soon.

  1. €90 per year. Use discount code EUOBS40%
  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.

Journalists on trial highlights Turkey's crackdown

The trial, which opened Monday, of 17 journalists and administrative employees of the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet is considered one of the most important episodes in a systematic campaign to silence dissent.

Journalists on trial highlights Turkey's crackdown

The trial, which opened Monday, of 17 journalists and administrative employees of the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet is considered one of the most important episodes in a systematic campaign to silence dissent.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EU2017EELocal Leaders Push for Local and Regional Targets to Address Climate Change
  2. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceMore Women Than Men Have Died From Heart Disease in Past 30 Years
  3. European Jewish CongressJean-Marie Le Pen Faces Trial for Oven Comments About Jewish Singer
  4. ACCAAnnounces Belt & Road Research at Shanghai Conference
  5. ECPAFood waste in the field can double without crop protection. #WithOrWithout #pesticides
  6. EU2017EEEstonia Allocates €1 Million to Alleviate Migratory Pressure From Libya in Italy
  7. Dialogue PlatformFethullah Gulen's Message on the Anniversary of the Coup Attempt in Turkey
  8. Martens CentreWeeding out Fake News: An Approach to Social Media Regulation
  9. European Jewish CongressEJC Concerned by Normalisation of Antisemitic Tropes in Hungary
  10. Counter BalanceOut for Summer Episode 1: How the EIB Sweeps a Development Fiasco Under the Rug
  11. CESICESI to Participate in Sectoral Social Dialogue Committee on Postal Services
  12. ILGA-EuropeMalta Keeps on Rocking: Marriage Equality on Its Way

Latest News

  1. US votes on sanctions against EU firms in Russia project
  2. Journalists on trial highlights Turkey's crackdown
  3. EU to give research tips on dual food quality
  4. Polish president's veto leaves uncertainties over next move
  5. EU Commission unmoved by Polish president's veto
  6. UK presses the Brexit pause button
  7. German car cartel case may take long time to prove
  8. Stronger EU-Egypt ties must not disregard human rights

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Friends of ArmeniaEuFoA Director and MEPs Comment on the Recent Conflict Escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh
  2. EU2017EEEstonian Presidency Kicks off Youth Programme With Coding Summer School
  3. EPSUEP Support for Corporate Tax Transparency Principle Unlikely to Pass Reality Check
  4. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament Improves the External Investment Plan but Significant Challenges Ahead
  5. EU2017EEPM Ratas: EU Is Not Only an Idea for the 500mn People in the Bloc, It Is Their Daily Reality
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersCloser Energy Co-Operation Keeps Nordic Region on Top in Green Energy
  7. ILGA-EuropeGermany Finally Says Ja - Bundestag Votes for Marriage Equality!
  8. EPSUJapanese and European Public Sector Unions Slam JEFTA
  9. World VisionEU, Young Leaders and Civil Society Join Forces to End Violence Against Girls
  10. UNICEFNarrowing the Gaps: The Power of Investing in the Health of the Poorest Children
  11. EU2017EEEstonia to Surprise Europe With Unique Cultural Programme
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Talks Should Insist on Ending Reprisals Vs. Critical Voices