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Estonian Defence Company Aims to Revolutionize Modern Warfare

Text by Gert D. Hankewitz. Photos by MILREM.

Milrem's unmanned ground vehicle

Milrem's unmanned ground vehicle.

Estonian based company Milrem is developing a unique unmanned ground vehicle which aims to revolutionize modern warfare as well as keeping humans away from dangerous places.

If you’re a big technology fan, you might have heard about the Estonian delivery robot called Starship, which will soon be seen driving around larger cities on its own, bringing pizza, Chinese food and your Amazon purchases to your doorstep!

Well, in another part of Tallinn a team of engineers is developing another unmanned vehicle intended to replace or assist soldiers on the battlefield and keep other personnel with hazardous working conditions out of harm’s way.

Its developer, Milrem, is a fairly new company – established as recently as 2013 by SEBE, a well-known bus operator with several intercity bus lines. Sounds crazy? Not really!

SEBE has always had a vast experience in heavy duty maintenance, because almost every bus they own is repaired and maintained in their own workshop. So when the Estonian Defence Forces were looking for a company who could maintain and repair their armoured vehicles, namely the XA-180 and the XA-188, SEBE naturally wanted in.

After writing up hundreds of maintenance documents to prove that a civilian bus operator nonetheless has what it takes, SEBE won the tender, and shortly afterwards Milrem was founded.

However, being only a repair and maintenance company was never the plan. Milrem’s CEO Kuldar Väärsi had a broader vision. To be successful in the tough defence sector, research and development capabilities are needed to produce something unique, practical and useful enough to be able to compete with the big defence companies. And so the Tracked Hybrid Modular Infantry Systems, or THeMIS, was born. THeMIS is a remotely controlled tracked vehicle with a width and length of 2.1m and a height of 0.98m. All the necessary parts needed to make to vehicle move are placed inside the tracks, leaving the middle platform as free space. With a payload capability of at least 750kg, the vehicle can be outfitted with different weapon systems, sensor arrays and Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) devices or be used simply for transportation.

This will allow it to assist soldiers on the battlefield, for example in providing fire support, clearing a path through a minefield or carrying a squad’s gear. In the future, who knows, maybe it will save lives by keeping humans completely away from the battlefield. The goal is to develop it from a remotely operated vehicle into an autonomous system which can navigate harsh terrains with minimal human interference.

And the best part of all is that the vehicle is modular. So if anything breaks, it can quickly be exchanged for a working unit and sent back to work, while the broken part gets repaired.

To accomplish this, Milrem has concentrated on four aspects: hiring the best engineers available, finding consultants with military experience, cultivating a vast network of cooperation partners and anticipating the market’s demand.

For example, several of the chief engineers that work for Milrem have a background in the Estonian Student Formula Team. This is an international product development team whose main objective is to design, build and present a single seat formula car prototype for an amateur weekend racer. So the students are involved in building a car from scratch and take turns racing it all over the world.

To supplement their efforts, Milrem also seek advice from engineers with international defence sector experience, who can see the big picture and know the sector inside and out. They can give the Estonian engineers practical tips on new technologies and ways of doing things that are acceptable in the international market.

Two military advisers – a former Brigadier General of the Estonian army and a Colonel from Latvia with a Master’s degree in Military Leadership and Security, are also consulting on the project. Their mission is to point the development in the direction that will benefit actual soldiers the most.

Thanks to an attractive and never-before-seen design, from an up and coming product designer, Ragnar Plinkner, from the Estonian Academy of Arts, THeMIS has garnered a lot of attention.

Some of this attention has also lead to cooperation agreements with the big names in the industry.

One of the first companies who realized the potential of THeMIS was Singapore Technologies Kinetics (STK). This is a company that is part of the region’s biggest player, Singapore Technologies Engineering.

Since Singapore, much like Estonia, is a small country, a robot which can do the work of humans is most intriguing to them. So at the moment Milrem is integrating the remote weapon system ADDER produced by STK into THeMIS. The joint product has already been exhibited in London and Singapore, and live firing tests are planned for autumn 2016.

Singapore and the US are expected to buy large number of unmanned ground vehicle, or UGVs, starting over the next two to three years and expand the market to a tune of more than billion dollars. So it is understandable why Milrem is interested in that market.

The US is also the forerunner in procuring unmanned technologies. In the late ‘90s the US military started using unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, as part their regular equipment. Starting from that moment there was a rapid boom in the industry and several producers emerged to take advantage of some of the money the US was spending.
Seeing as this will also happen with UGVs, Milrem started early enough to be in a good position when the US realizes that this is the way to go.
As stated, at present there are hundreds of UAV producers, but not so many companies that develop UGVs. Granted, there are several producers of smaller vehicles which can be used for one specific task, but not so many makers of bigger machines which boast a higher payload. This is where Milrem comes in.

To be able to compete so far from home, Milrem hopes to team up with a local partner.

Exhibiting at the Unmanned Systems Exhibition on Abu Dhabi in March this year, Milrem also caught the eye of the International Golden Group (IGG). IGG is the country’s leading supplier of high end defence technology to the UAE Armed forces, Ministry of Interior, and other defence and security authorities.

However, Milrem has also caught the eye of the Estonian Defence Forces. During this springs’ major military exercise, Spring Storm 2016, Milrem provided THeMIS to be tested as a logistics support vehicle to the conscripts participating.

The aim was to see how young soldiers can handle the vehicle and equally how the vehicle can handle young soldiers! During three days the conscripts did everything imaginable with the vehicle – uphill, downhill, over obstacles and difficult terrain, carrying equipment etc. By the end of the testing period it was nice to see that both parties – the soldiers and the UGV – survived!

But the military is not the only place where Milrem’s unmanned system could be used. For example, after a successful exhibition in Singapore, Milrem received an email from Leica Geosystems. The company wanted to integrate their 3D mapping solution Pegasus: Two into the UGV. Thus Multiscope was born.

Being basically the same product as THeMIS, Multiscope is aimed only at the commercial market. Together with Leica Geosystems, the platform is being marketed in the US private sector.

The Multiscope was first introduced in Anaheim, CA during HxGn Live, a special event where geospatial and industrial enterprise information technologies are being exhibited.

Like THeMIS, the potential of the Multiscope is endless – it could be used in border guarding, mining, surveying and much more.

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