Monday, 14 June, 2021

Who are the champions of military French Tech?

Little known, these SMEs and mid-cap companies are technological leaders in the French defense industry. Close-up on some nuggets at the Eurosatory defense exhibition.

A TSR robot from the French company ECA.  This material is used by the army to intervene on ...

In the aisles of the Eurosatory show, there are of course the bigwigs, from Thales to Raytheon, from the Israeli IAI to the European missile company MBDA, from Textron to Nexter. And then there are the hidden gems, around a stand or at the end of an aisle. A real breeding ground for SMEs and mid-cap companies as technological as they are exporters, which reflect the weight of the defense sector in French industry (18 billion euros in turnover, 165,000 jobs, according to the Ministry of the Economy). From “air-dropable” engineering machines to demining robots, including cutting-edge optical sensors and drones, a close-up of these little-known players in the military industry.

ECA, champion of land, naval and air drones

A subsidiary of the Gorgé group, this Toulon company has the particularity of mastering all drone technologies. By buying the SME Infotron, the group got its hands on its bestseller IT180 drone, already sold to the French army and deployed in Mali: the machine monitors the intervention zones of the 13th Engineer regiment, and aid in the detection of improvised explosive devices (IED). ECA now offers a wired version of its drone. “This version resolves the question of autonomy, which is, suddenly, unlimited, underlines Francis Duruflé. The drone acts like a kind of virtual mast, deployable in a few minutes. It spots human targets 2km away, and can be used as a convoy escort. ” In addition to military prospects, the company aims for contracts with the gendarmerie, the police headquarters or civil security.

ECA Robotics, the terrestrial robot subsidiary of ECA, for its part offers robots for recognizing, “de-trapping” packages and CBRN missions (nuclear, radiological, biological, chemical risks). Available in three sizes (Cobra, Camélaon, Iguana), these robots manufactured in Saclay have been sold around thirty copies to the French forces (engineering reconnaissance robots), but the ETI is a hit beyond France. “The company generates 50% of its sales from exports”, underlines Jean-Marc Denis, business manager at ECA Robotics. The robots are sold between 20,000 and 200,000 euros each.

Hercules, the exoskeleton of RB3D

Exhibited on the DGA stand, the exoskeleton of the French start-up RB3D caused a sensation during the demonstrations. The principle? The Hercules exoskeleton assists the operator in transporting heavy loads: 60kg of ammunition crates are thus fully supported by the machine, which increases the operator’s transport capacities. “This is the fourth version of the product, which we have reduced by halving the number of engines,” explains Vincent Mauvisseau, deputy director in charge of production. Autonomy is 3 to 6 hours, depending on the load carried. In addition to its military applications, the product is also tested by Colas for its operators responsible for smoothing the bitumen, and by Point P. RB3D currently has 17 employees, including 13 engineers.

UNAC, the champion of air-dropable construction machinery

This SME from Vergèze (Gard) manufactures both brush clearing, snow removal and earthmoving machines for civilian applications, and machines for the armed forces. A rare specialty: the devices in question must be “air-dropable”, that is to say they can be parachuted into theaters of operations from A400M or C-130 transport planes. UNAC thus manufactures excavators for rail and road, forestry or demining trackers, equipment for preparing or repairing airport runways. “Faced with giants like Caterpillar, we are focusing on small series for specific needs,” explains Benjamin Espana, military affairs officer at UNAC. With undeniable success: the group, which is growing strongly, has a turnover of 20 million euros.

Novadem, Delair Tech, Drone Volt: la French Touch des drones

Always smaller, always more efficient. The Aix-based drone manufacturer Novadem, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, presented a revolutionary new small drone, the NX70, at Eurosatory. The machine succeeds in the feat of displaying, despite its featherweight of less than a kilo, 45 minutes of autonomy, a range of 3km, of integrating three cameras (two optics and a thermal) and of supporting winds of 70km / h. Foldable and deployable in seconds, it thus achieves the performance of drones two to three times heavier. “It has no equivalent in the world in terms of weight-performance”, assures CEO Pascal Zunino. The army and firefighters will now assess the drone. Meanwhile, Novadem continues to sell the big brother NX110. The drone was selected by Gabon as part of an offer coupled with ground robots from Nexter Robotics.

Delair-Tech is the French champion in fixed-wing drones. After seducing the SNCF with its DT-26 drone and raising 14 million euros to conquer the United States and diversify into services, the Toulouse group is tackling the military market with a hardened version of the DT-26, known as DT-26M. This drone, equipped with an optronic ball developed by InPixal and Novadem, displays 2h30 of autonomy and a range of 30km. Allied to ECA, Delair Tech is counting on this machine to win the SMDR (Intelligence Microdrones System) call for tenders from the DGA, microdrones intended to replace the Army DRACs and the Special Forces Skylark.

Drone Volt is another nugget in the French drone industry. Listed on the stock exchange since 2015, this group specializing in assignments for audiovisual, construction, agricultural and security clients, already has a turnover of 3.5 million euros. It offers both a wired surveillance drone, the Z18 UF, and an anti-riot device, Tear Gas, capable of projecting tear gas without exposing the agents. The company has opened subsidiaries in Denmark, Belgium and Canada, and has sales offices in the United States, Switzerland and Italy. “The objective is to gain market share quickly to benefit from the take-off of the market”, indicates Dimitri Batsis, the founder. The SME is valued at 17 million euros on the stock market.

Photonis, cutting-edge optical sensors

This is the kind of mid-size company that every industry minister dreams of. With a thousand employees and 160 million euros in turnover, Photonis is one of the world leaders in night vision equipment. The group, whose main production site is located in Brive (Corrèze), notably supplies the light intensifier tubes integrated into the high-tech range of the French infantryman, FELIN. Its Kameleon system allows you to see in color in almost total darkness, while all competing systems only allow you to see in black and white. The company alone represents 15% of exports from the French optronics industry. It notably succeeded in selling its equipment to the US Army.

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