Germany, Italy and France have signed a deal to develop an indigenous European drone, to reduce reliance on Israel and the U.S. The deal, which was first mooted in 2013, will attempt to build a device by 2025, starting with a two-year technical assessment to answer questions of design, adaptability and cost.
If successful the project, a collaboration between aerospace giants Airbus, Alenia Aermacchi and Dassault Aviation, will be worth one billion euros ($1.12 billion). The prospected medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) machine will be able to fly at up to 9,000 meters for 24 hours, and will be used for reconnaissance and surveillance.
A host of other European countries, including Poland and Spain, have also expressed interest and may join the project at a later stage.
In 2013 the three companies claimed that a ‘Euro-drone’ project would safeguard “European sovereignty and independence in the management of information and intelligence.”
Upon signing today’s agreement, German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen said that, “The goal of the Euro-drone is that we can decide by ourselves in Europe on what we use it, where we deploy the Euro-drone and how we use it. This makes us, the Europeans, independent.”
Europe is already lagging well behind Israel and the U.S. in military drone manufacturing.
Israel reaps 60.7% of market share, according to a Sipri report. The U.S. has a 23.9% share and Canada rounds out the top three with 6.4%. France, Italy and Germany currently sell 1.6%, 1.1% and 1% respectively. European countries, meanwhile, import over half of all drones worldwide. The U.K. is by far the biggest, being the destination for 33.9% of all devices from 2010 to 2014.
Italy and France currently use the U.S.-built General Atomics Reaper drone, while Germany and France also use a variety of Israeli devices. But the Reaper is still uncertified for use in European airspace, amid a growing public and administrative debate about their morality and efficacy.
“A lot of the expertise is already in America and Israel, and I’m not sure if Europe can better those,” Frank Goossen of Dutch site Dronexpert.nl told Red Herring. :We are running behind them with drones. It wouldn’t be bad to explore whether it’s useful for European manufacturers, but it will be very tough.”
As reported at Red Herring this February, the drone industry is set for huge growth. The Teal Group, an analyst, expects that it will be worth $91 billion by 2024.
Drones have faced a more uphill battle in Europe, where opposition to their use is stronger than in the US. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that between 2,453 and 3,956 people have been killed in US drone strikes, of which 423 to 962 are civilians.
But Eric Trappier, CEO of French outfit Dassault Aviation, reinforced the importance of today’s announcement in the future of European industrial autonomy: “We welcome this important announcement, which confirms the legitimacy and interest of our joint industrial initiative started in 2013. European countries must develop a sovereign, Next-generation MALE UAS solution, for both military and security missions, which is required by our armed forces.”
Airbus’ defense fortunes have stumbled recently. Its airlifter program has been heavily scrutinized – particularly from the German government – and there have been extensive corporate reshuffles as a result. In May one of the firm’s A400M airlifters crashed while on a test flight near Seville, killing four personnel.
A spokesman for the firm reinforced its commitment to defense projects across the board, and maintained that its cooperation with erstwhile rival firms is “no problem.” The spokesman highlighted the Eurofighter Typhoon project, which has continued since 1994 and has supplied 427 jets alongside Alenia Aermacchi and BAE Systems. Drones are an “important” aspect of the company’s future, added the spokesman, who added: “we want to be competitive in this technology.”