One of the game changers in warfare is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, such as drones. Now Europe is also investing in smart earth robots. Sol.One, an SME from Bruges, works on an operating system. ‘With swarms of such robots, you can guard the EU’s eastern border much better.’
A test with high-tech army robots will take place in our country on Friday. It is the fourth in a series of six demonstrations of the European innovation project iMUGS. The goal: to get self-driving vehicles to perform tasks together. In a swarm, as it is called. ‘It goes much further than just letting robots run autonomously’, explains Filip Verhaeghe, the founder of Sol.One. ‘What we want to do in this project does not yet exist.’
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Sol.One, a Bruges SME that actually makes advanced aircraft control systems, is one of three Belgian participants in iMUGS. The Royal Military Academy and dotOcean, another SME from Bruges, are also involved in the project, which includes eleven partners from six other European countries. DotOcean mainly specializes in technology for controlling drones on and under water.
‘The idea is that we can send a column of these robots on the road via a manned earth station – a rebuilt jeep. Instead of giving instructions to all these devices, you only give one order to the first, and it then controls the rest. It’s really about caterpillar computers. “
The harnesses themselves are not new. The Estonian company Milrem, the coordinator of the project, has already developed them. What’s new is how they work together via a set of artificial intelligence, sensors and sophisticated communication systems.
The big challenge is to adapt all the technologies needed to make the system work. ‘If a robot makes a video in a certain area, how do you forward it?’ Says Verhaeghe. ‘It’s about complex matters, but sometimes just about stupid practical details, such as who delivers the joystick.’
Ultimately, the robots must be able to be implemented for a variety of tasks. For example, for monitoring, delivering or removing victims from the field. They can be equipped with smoke systems or weapons to obscure or even invalidate the enemy.
The latter leads to ethical discussions. Autonomous systems that can be deadly are controversial. The IMUGS project assignment therefore emphasizes that there is ‘meaningful’ human control over the system at all times, so there are no ‘killer robots’. Although some argue that “meaningful” is too vague a concept and that there is an urgent need for clearer and better regulation of this. Especially given the enormous potential of technology.
The project assignment emphasizes that there is ‘meaningful’ human control over the system at all times, so there are no ‘killer robots’.
According to some experts, autonomous robots are the key to the next shift in warfare. They are everywhere: in the air, in the sea and on land. Flying drones have already penetrated deep into warfare. In Ukraine, Russian drones fire at soldiers from the air. Terrorists can fill a household appliance for 15 euros with explosives and make a flying bomb.
More sophisticated systems in which drones fly in a swarm and determine targets or map enemy territory based on artificial intelligence are fully developed. Similar technology is being developed for the fleet. In Belgium, this is done, among other things, with underwater drones for demining.
The use of smart ground robots offers enormous opportunities. ‘Europe has a long eastern border,’ says Verhaeghe. “The war in Ukraine shows how important it is to guard it. It is impossible with soldiers alone. One can do much more with swarms of robots with relatively few people.”
The ultimate goal of iMUGS is to deliver a standardized prototype by the end of this year. The project is funded by the European Innovation Fund EDIDP, a forerunner of the large European Defense Fund, which will inject 8 billion euros into new military technology in 2027. The budget for iMUGS is 32 million, of which 2 million will be paid by Belgium.
A majority of European Member States will be interested in purchasing the system when it is ready. Experts estimate that thousands of these robots could go into circulation over the next 10 to 15 years. “But it will not make us rich,” says Verhaeghe. ‘We retain intellectual property, but our technology is only in the earth station, not in the robots. We do not do that either. For us, the research is particularly interesting (see insert) and what we can do with that knowledge. ‘
From ground robot to unmanned flying taxi
With the knowledge that Brügge’s SMV Sol.One is building up with the iMUGS project, they want to send thousands of flying taxis into the air. Unmanned, that is.
‘We are seeing a civilian spin-off,’ says Filip Verhaeghe, founder of Sol.One, about why he is participating in the military research project on smart earth robots. Bruges SMEs build automatic systems to control aircraft and drones. It’s about technology that it’s developing with customers, which will soon appear in new aircraft.
“Everything is integrated, from the autopilot to the overview of the entire cockpit,” he says. »The computer software in aircraft must absolutely not go down. Therefore, we have written our own programming language that can not make mistakes. It should provide significant efficiency gains. ‘
In the next step, Verhaeghe is already thinking ahead. ‘There is also a trend towards electric aircraft in aviation. It’s not about big devices, because you need oversized batteries. But a lot happens in small units. ‘ Think of devices that can carry one to several people. ‘The potential is huge,’ says Verhaeghe. How to get from downtown Los Angeles to the airport smoothly? With a flying taxi that would take seven minutes. Even if you pay double, it’s still affordable compared to the time you lose on the road. ‘
According to Verhaeghe, this is not about science fiction. Companies like the listed American Archer and the German Volocopter are working on this, as is the Chinese Autoflight. ‘Only an important bottleneck is the availability of pilots. If you want to send a bunch of those cabs up in the air, who’s going to man them all? ‘
Busy air traffic
Therefore, Verhaeghe hopes to use knowledge about the iMUGS project to fly those taxis in swarms. Several aircraft – without a pilot, but with passenger (s) – would be controlled from one manned station. ‘Because you’re talking about potentially very busy air traffic, if thousands of those taxis are flying around, it’s important that the planes can coordinate well with each other.’
Sol.One had a turnover of 1.2 million euros in 2021 and was loss-making. “This year it should double.” It currently employs 33 people and there should be 50 by the end of this year. “Sales will increase as soon as the aircraft that our systems serve really goes into production.”