From paper to battle in four years

Milrem’s unmanned ground vehicle.

PHOTO: Milrem Robotics

Four years ago, two engineers were given a pencil and paper and set about fleshing out Milrem’s unmanned ground vehicle. Today, the company is working with the top dogs of the defense industry. Milrem’s THeMIS is a European favorite and is being tested by US marines and praised by the Brits.

If last year, the company sold approximately one million euros worth of UGVs, owner and CEO of Milrem Robotics Kuldar Väärsi projects sales revenue at €10 million for next year, whereas contracts already exist for a third of that.

“One study put the approximate value of the UGV market at $2.5 billion in 2016 that is projected to grow to $14.6 billion by 2022. The market is believed to grow sevenfold,” Väärsi said – and Milrem’s ambition is nothing less. “We have a finished product to sell to the client, complete with a full package of trainings, service and follow-up maintenance.”

The company announced it hired 20 engineers for new product development services in spring, while more than 40 total new hires put the number of employees at 83 this year. “Our sector has become increasingly international. In addition to our own team, Monday morning meetings see colleagues from Sweden and France, people from Latvia and USA,” Väärsi said.

Milrem Robotics is about to create a subsidiary in the Swedish town of Örnsköldsvik. “The reason is that [the world’s third largest weapons manufacturer] BAE Systems has an office there and it has laid off almost half of its engineers there in the past year. We see valuable labor potential we can add to Estonian developments,” he said. The Swedish office should have around ten engineers working there by the end of next year.

Milrem Robotics and its US partner QinetiQ North America handed two of their UGVs over to US marines for testing over the next two to three years.

“Negotiations are in the closing stages in the Netherlands, Norway, Thailand. THeMIS is already seeing use in France, while major deals are yet to be done,” Väärsi said.

A contract for jointly developing unmanned battle systems was signed with leading French defense contractor Nexter in June. Cooperation with French missile manufacturer MBDA saw the MMP anti-tank system attached to the THeMIS. The platform is also used for explosives disposal, communications and logistics solutions, intelligence equipment and UAVs.

“We are nearing the end of the Army Warfighter Experiment in the UK for which we supplied four vehicles and applications: two were purely our own models and two were made in cooperation with our UK partner QinetiQ.”

British soldiers went through the motions of the exercise three times: once without new technology and using recent tactics, once while using new technology but still using recent tactics and once by changing tactics according to what new technology allows. The Brits are currently in the process of analyzing the results and drawing conclusions.

“We should be seeing major orders and programs in 2021-2022, when the test programs have been concluded and have shown how many vehicles are needed [per unit]. The clearest example from public sources is the Americans’ unmanned ground vehicles procurement (SMET) the volume of which stands at over 5,000 units. We are not talking about such numbers in Europe, while we are also not talking in dozens. It’s hundreds,” the CEO said.

Milrem made it to round two of SMET but not the final and decisive one. The finale was played out between four US companies Väärsi considers his main competition. “If compared to Europe, we are half a step ahead, they are competing in terms of whose platform can offer the most flexibility in the US. We could say that in terms of flexibility and modularity we are ahead of those four – General Dynamics Land Systems, Polaris, HDT and Howe and Howe. One example of this is the fact US marines went for our platform.”

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