22nd Mar 2018

EU funds anti-terror X-ray vision and drone brains

  • Norwegian special forces during a Nato exercise in Daugavpils in 2015. The photos in this article are not related to the projects (Photo: NATO)

The European Union has funded research which will eventually allow soldiers to see through walls, as well as a project that automates control of unmanned vehicles and aircraft.

"Their intent was to test the process and see if industry, academia and military were willing to work together and willing to share enough between themselves so that you could actually drive research forward," said Andre Oliveira, coordinator of the see-through-walls project.

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  • Andre Oliveira about Spider: 'The idea is to ensure that troops are safer, and that they don't go into a building blind' (Photo: NATO)

Two of the three projects of the €1.4m programme will wrap up this month, but only after the European Parliament's industry committee votes on its much larger successor, a €500m European Defence Industrial Development Programme, part of the future European Defence Fund.

The two projects give some insight into what to expect from the defence fund, but also raise questions over potential unintended consequences that the European Parliament is due to address later this month.

The €1.4m programme is simply called the Pilot Project in the field of defence research and began in 2016.

Oliveira's project is called Spider, an acronym for Sensor Platform and network for Indoor Deployment and Exterior-based Radiofrequency.

The consortium around Spider aims to improve the technological ability to x-ray walls, which can be useful, for instance, in urban combat or in trying to handle a terrorist hostage sitiation.

"The idea is to ensure that troops are safer, and that they don't go into a building blind, without knowing what they can expect to find on the inside," Oliveira told EUobserver by phone from Portugal.

His project combined two existing techniques: using radar to detect movement and small mobile robots with cameras.

"See-through wall radar is something that is fairly new," he said, adding that it still has many technical and practical challenges.

"The radar just tells you that there is someone there. It doesn't tell you if it's someone with malicious intent like a terrorist, or a civilian who is scared and just panicking and moving around," said Oliveira.

Mobile robots

He described the mobile robot as a small cylinder with two wheels, one on each side, and a camera.

"You just throw the cylinder for example across a window, and then it can be remotely piloted from the outside," he said.

The combination of the two techniques would give troops information on who was inside, but also help them to create a 3D map of the building.

"It's still in its early stages, but results have been promising," he said.

The programme is being carried out by a consortium of institutes and companies, based in Bulgaria, Portugal, and the UK, with Oliveira representing the Portuguese company Tekever Aerospace, Defence and Security.

It is a response to a call for proposals by the EU, which will contribute a total of around €433,000 - a tiny amount compared to the annual turnover of the European defence industry, some €100bn.

The EU money is meant to motivate private and public entities across the bloc to work together.

"There is no reason why this couldn't be developed or funded through national money," said Oliveira about his project.

"I think what they have tried to do with the pilot project on defence research, was to identify areas of common interest between the different European nations," he added.

The Euroswarm consortium has developed a software algorithm that can autonomously control 'swarms' of drones and other unmanned vehicles (Photo: NATO)

Hyo-Sang Shin also had a good experience of working with a consortium.

"Each party is contributing on their aspect, related to their own expertise," he told this website.

Shin, from the Cranfield university in the UK, is involved in another project under EU pilot programme, called Euroswarm, which will receive a similar sum to Spider.

It involves creating a software algorithm that can control unmanned systems of different types, for example both unmanned ground vehicles as well as drones.

"It's a kind of brain of the unmanned systems," said Shin.

While the Euroswarm project will demonstrate the 'brain' in a military setting, Shin noted that the principles could also be applied for civilian purposes, such as border control, disaster monitoring, and police monitoring of motorways.

The system is fully autonomous, which could raise concerns, but Shin noted that a human operator is always monitoring the robot systems and can switch them off.

"It's supervised," he said.

Few MEPs involved

The EU has gone ahead with funding these projects without much public debate in the European Parliament about the criteria, for example, on whether the EU should actually fund autonomous systems.

MEPs were, by and large, not involved in the pilot programme, or in a subsequent campaign, the Preparatory action on Defence Research (PARD).

The commission was able to start the €90m PARD scheme, of which €25m was earmarked in 2017, without needing explicit approval from MEPs.

In January, the first PARD grant, worth €950,000, was signed with a consortium that will develop so-called joint technology foresight activities.

MEPs' explicit approval is needed for the €500m European Defence Industrial Development Programme (EDIDP), however.

The commission and national governments are pushing ahead swiftly with the EDIDP, despite the two trial programmes - the pilot project and the PARD - not yet having concluded.

The upside-down logic is: Now that there have been pilot programmes, it would be a waste not to continue.

When the commission proposed the €500m programme, it said that not following up PARD with a programme for the development stage of products would send a negative signal to investors and industry.

"Possible learning opportunities would be lost," the commission said.

Laughable €500m

Centre-right Belgian MEP Anneleen Van Bossuyt, who is closely involved in the file, said the EU should not wait any longer when it comes to investing in the defence industry.

She added that the €500m will be spread out over two years and is in itself a kind of a pilot project.

"I think that when they hear in the US that we are making such a fuss about €500m, they would laugh," she recently told this website.

Oliveira, from the Spider project, said the pilot programme was more about seeing if more defence cooperation was possible, not what the projects' research resulted in.

The parliament's industry committee vote on the EDIDP is scheduled for 21 February.

MEPs may bar killer drones from EU research cash

EU defence fund is expected to hand out €500m to companies across the EU if they work together on 'defence products'. Under the current proposal, the development of weapons of mass destruction would not be excluded.

EU to spend €1.5bn a year on joint defence

The Commission has offered to put aside €1.5 billion a year for joint defence spending in what could be the first step toward the creation of an EU army.

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