Estonians evolving an unmanned flying object

Please note that the article is more than five years old and belongs to our archive. We do not update the content of the archives, so it may be necessary to consult newer sources.
Photo: Liis Treimann

What’s in common between armies of USA, LAV and Estonia? All use weapon simulators by OÜ Eli, a firm based in Pirita.

It was 1995. Estonian Defence Forces still in their baby shoes, OÜ Eli launched its business of developing stuff to protect the nation. An officer, Meelis Säre by name, was a man of big plans. It was by his initiative that, via defence ministry, Eli got busy developing firearm and anti tank simulators.

«Without Mr Säre we probably had not made these things,» said Eli CEO Tõnu Vaher. Currently, simulators made by Eli are many and varied. The company’s greatest sales hit – a blowback imitator – was developed 19 years ago. These sell a couple of thousand a year. A lock removed from a gun, it is replaced with said device providing for exactly the blowback as a real weapon would. The aim is to shift the sight so as to have the soldier not just to refire, but to aim each shot anew.

The firm has about 30 arms models. Developing and adding a new one takes about three months.

«Our solutions are unique,» said Eli sales director Gerry Saarep, praising the blowback imitators. The price is some thousand euros. In a safe environment, it gives soldiers the chance to practice handling a gun – all parts of a weapon retain their functions. «But they will have to ho practice the real rifles as well, one will never replace the other,» noted Mr Saarep.

Among other things, they offer the tactical simulator Alfons, allowing various battle situations to be played out on various terrain involving up to 12 troops. «Alfons’ main goal is to train squad leaders and platoon commanders, not [to teach] soldiers to shoot,» explained Mr Saarep. As example of that, he describe a scenario where enemy column is coming down the road and a squad leader has to decide whether to engage in a battle or let it pass through.

Save large money

The economic effect is vast with anti tank simulator – its shell may cost dozens of thousands of euros.

Also, Eli has got mine thrower simulators with range ten times less than the real one. By this, a soldier in the field will still need to consider the direction of the wind and use the gunsights, while the training area is smaller – a football field will do.

A «mine» contains a mechanism which hitting the ground will release a capsule of chalk. «Thereby, one may observe from a distance where the mine hit,» explained Mr Saarep. After the training, these may be picked up again. Lots of mine thrower simulators have been sold to Georgia. 

Eli is also producing two types of targets to train marksmen: mobile and immobile ones. The ones are the kind that rise up from the ground, the others ride along monorails. The targets are shot at with real ammunition. An instructor is able to check the hits from his board. Estonian Defence Forced has about a dozen of such sets, with 30 devices in each. Also, these are used in Georgian army and Finnish defence league.

About once a year, Eli attends trade fairs to get new clients. «Attending a fair costs about €30,000,»explains Mr Vaher. Eli does share the stand with Estonian Defence Industry Union, but needing much more space they book one extra. The fairs attract people who do procurements and might take an interests towards Eli’s components, or perhaps acting as intermediaries. 

«Foreign procurements always happen via go-betweens. With the rare exceptions of Georgia perhaps, or some other places, but basically there’s always someone in between,» explained Mr Vaher. Every country has its so-called trustee companies.

Rather often, foreign procurements are the targeted kind. «There comes the documentation, but all in all is adds up to a certain amount of information and we are able to tell that the procurement is for a definite product of a definite country,» said Mr Vaher.

For years, there have been no major procurements by Estonian Defence Forces. The only products they are currently making for Estonia is «school ranges» – shooting ranges for basic defence studies in schools. By defence ministry financing, a hundred or so have been sold to the schools.

«During these past seven years, there have been no procurements basically. All we produce and develop at the moment we sell abroad,» said Mr Vaher.

With the procurements, own country products might be preferred if possible. A vital factor here being maintenance costs and time. «Defence Forces had a foreign simulator break down, needing maintenance. To fix a gadget like that, the producer asked a whopping one million kroons. Long story short, we fixed the thing and the state paid ten times less,» recalled Mr Vaher.

Drone times coming

The other aspect is the time consuming paper work when taking military goods abroad. A few years ago, the Georgians ordered their entire training gear from Eli. In his last talk to them, Mr Vaher asked how the stuff is working. Well, they said.

«For sure some of it is not working. But I assume they are shifting parts from one piece to another,» observed the CEO. In the Georgian Army, maintenance money just has not been budgeted. Still, he assumes, most of the stuff is probably working.

To the intermediaries, Eli sells technical support and sends spare parts. When something just totally falls apart, they can fox it in Pirita. «There’s not much that has been sent back, but , yes, they’ve sent some blowback simulators,» relates Mr Saarep. The profit is basically channelled into developing drones. «In the hopes that some day it will bring a harvest back,» said Mr Vaher. According to him, this is one highly perspective technology. Their latest thing is multi-rotor ELIX-XXL – small enough to fit in a rucksack.

«We have mainly been into concept. One’s for sure: a soldier is a simple man, and whatever we give him needs to be simple,» noted Mr Vaher. Thanks to the very concept, multi-rotors have already gone to USA and Spain.

A drone is three in one: the drone, the control centre i.e. a computer, and antenna communication. Though the device is small, Mr Vaher says it’s good for hard conditions with winds and cold affecting drone and its «master» alike.

The thing can stay up for up to 40minutes, during which it gets a good overview of a situation while flying 50–100 metres above surface. The device may be used by special service units, police and border-guard. «Catching a border crosser ought to be quite easy with this, when more or less aware of the location,» said Mr Vaher.

Developing a drone takes a couple of years – concept, ordering the parts, and putting it all together. Occasionally, a part ordered may not fit and will be waiting for its time. That may make development costly, but the drone will pay off.

Eli OÜ

•    Established in 1995

•    Owners: Tõnu Vaher, Toomas Haggi, Jaan Palm, Priit Leomar

•    Staff: 15

•    Turnover: €706,508, profit €26,172

Source: commercial register