Estonian company developing new military robot

Lennart Ruuda
, reporter
Founder and CEO of Milrem Kuldar Väärsi.
Founder and CEO of Milrem Kuldar Väärsi. Photo: Remo Tõnismäe

During a time when people are laid off, salaries are cut and companies are downtrodden, Estonian company Milrem is trying to revolutionize the global defense industry by developing an entirely new kind of military robot.

To give the reader a better idea of the concept, Milrem’s new robot could be compared to CV90 infantry fighting vehicles procured by the Estonian Defense Forces a few years ago. While it is not a tank as such, the TypeX has tracks and a turreted gun.

Milrem Robotics is a well-known defense contractor in both Estonia and the world. The company is best known for its unmanned ground vehicle THeMIS that plays an important role in the militaries of several countries. THeMIS robots have been used by the French armed forces in Mali, for example. Milrem is armed forces’ first stop for robotic battlefield solutions, at least in Europe.

No townhouse

THeMIS’ success means it is now time for the company to come up with a product several orders of magnitude heavier – an unmanned fighting vehicle. Founder and CEO of Milrem Kuldar Väärsi explained that the long-term goal is to replace all old-school infantry fighting vehicles with a new breed of military machines. He is convinced that like many other walks of life, the defense industry will become increasingly dependent on robots in the future, with fewer and fewer human soldiers on the battlefield.

According to Väärsi, the TypeX is made unique by a combination of three things: a hybrid powertrain (electricity and diesel), fully autonomous capacity and the fact it is unmanned. So far, existing IFVs have been refitted to allow remote control and there are optionally manned vehicles. “I believe these solutions are like townhouses that have the disadvantages of both an apartment and a house, while almost completely lacking advantages,” Väärsi said. “Ours is a fully original product developed by Estonian engineers.”

The businessman said that the TypeX has a number of advantages over old-school IFVs. Firstly, it’s around half the price of one. It is also nearly three times lighter than an average IFV, meaning that the TypeX has improved mobility and is easier to transport by plane. It can also be airdropped from an aircraft. The TypeX also has a lower profile than most IFVs, making it harder to detect in the field. At the same time, it has a turret with a 30-55 mm gun, just like the CV90.

How the TypeX will be used on the battlefield depends largely on the structure of different armed forces, terrain and tactics. Väärsi said the main task of the new robot will be to support main battle tanks and mechanized units. It is perfectly suited for high-risk situations where troop presence would be too dangerous.

Like the THeMIS that can be used both for fighting desert battles and putting out fires, the TypeX is also multifunctional. This means that its gun can be replaced with an AA system, mortar or radar if necessary. It can also be used as a transport platform for both equipment and troops. Modified TypeX robots can even be seen working in forestry in the future.

Setbacks from Italy and Spain

Where did interest in a new battle robot first come from? Väärsi said that Milrem has a very important client in the armed forces of a country that virtually paid for the entire development of the high-tech robot. This does not mean Milrem stands to lose the patent and its rights to the machine. Milrem is past worrying about whether anyone wants to buy things they have come up with. Rather, the company has countries lining up to cooperate.

Let it be said that TypeX currently exists only on paper. The components of the prototype are ready but have not reached Estonia yet. The company hopes to assemble the first TypeX by the end of summer. It will take another three years for the prototype to become a certified product ready to be marketed. Väärsi is not afraid of things going wrong. Most of the work has been done, all stages have passed software simulation tests and the only thing left is to assemble the actual vehicle.

Is the start of a major economic crisis a good time to launch a new project? Väärsi admitted that while Milrem has not experienced a setback like the 90-100 percent loss of revenue in the tourism sector, the crisis also affects them. “No one is unaffected by this,” he said. Countries are dialing back defense spending and developments. New and exciting but expensive robotics solutions are put off.

Both Italy and Spain, counties hit hardest by the coronavirus epidemic in Europe, have said they will have to postpone cooperation with Milrem. Many of the orders Milrem has received are already covered with contracts, however, meaning that the Estonian company should not experience a major setback this year. Milrem has nevertheless been forced to cut salaries.

Väärsi expects the Estonian Defense Forces to look inward and prefer domestic contractors to foreign ones. Companies have know-how and production capacity that can keep existing jobs and create new ones. “More so as our defense industry has blossomed in recent years,” Väärsi said. That is also the reason Milrem recently told the Estonian armed forces it can build several hundred armored vehicles for them.

The Milrem CEO is not too worried in the long run because unmanned battleground vehicles are here to stay. “It is possible the crisis will speed up this process as countries realize our robots are more effective and cheaper in the end,” the businessman ventured.