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How Estonian defence company Milrem became a leading robotics developer in Europe

Estonian company Milrem Robotics, the builder of good-hearted war robots, has become a leading robotics and autonomous systems developer in Europe.

Estonians are increasingly active and competent in the development of unmanned vehicles. Estonian companies have invented Iseauto, Starship, Milrem, Lumebot and Iselaev – to name a few. One of them Milrem, founded in 2013, has made an amazing journey from a bus repairing company to defence industry.

Kuldar Väärsi, CEO of Milrem Robotics recalls how it all began when the bus company SEBE introduced new buses on the Tallinn-Tartu route. This step significantly reduced demand for repair services. “Hence we were faced with the question of whether to close down some repair shops or to find a new line of activity for them,” Väärsi says.

At the same time, the Ministry of Defence was actively searching for a private sector contractor for the repair and maintenance of their heavy machinery in order to increase the security of provision and the availability of services. The ministry also wanted to develop the national defence industry.

“We won the public procurement for the repair and maintenance services provision of PASI XA armoured fighting vehicles. This was the beginning of our activities in the defence industry and we founded the company – Milrem – which additionally began to develop unmanned ground vehicles,” Väärsi tells. The development work began in the autumn of 2014 and already in September 2015 Milrem presented its Tracked Hybrid Modular Infantry System or THeMIS in London.

In 2017, the company was split into two: Milworks focusing on repairs and maintenance and Milrem Robotics on robotics.

Milworks – much more than a boring bus repair company

Milworks has workshops in three Estonian cities: Võru, Tapa and Tallinn, and it is much more than a  boring bus repair company. The company participates in more complex rebuilding and overhaul projects, digitalisation and projects requiring engineering know-how.  According to Ingvar Pärnamäe, CEO of Milworks, company’s ambition is to offer a full maintenance service in the life-cycle of military vehicles and weapon systems.


Milrem Robotics for both the civil and military fields

In the military field MilremRobotics started off with a slow (although quick enough to follow a unit on foot) and small machine – THeMIS, which drives 20 km/h and weighs 1.6 tons. On the basis of the same technology they developed the product Multiscope UGV, which is meant for civilian purposes such as the fire and rescue services, mining and forestry. Milrem is about to complete a military vehicle Type-X RCV prototype, which drives up to 80 km/h and weighs 12 tons. This armoured vehicle is meant as support for mechanised units.

“If you divide our work into three levels, we first develop robotics platforms which include THeMIS, Type-X and Multiscope,” Väärsi notes. “On the second level are intelligent functions or autonomy machines which are capable of fulfilling tasks on their own in an off-road environment. Thirdly we are increasingly working on systems integration. We do not just offer our customers a machine, but we solve a capability gap problem for them. Our next batch of vehicles is going to the Netherlands and those machines are equipped with weapon systems, shot detection, and command and control systems.”

Hence Milrem is increasingly a software development company. Milrem units are based in Tallinn and Tartu and there has been a small engineering office in Sweden for the last two years. Recently Milrem founded a company in Finland and is making plans to enter the Netherlands. “On one hand we need to get closer to our customers, on the other hand we want to bring in know-how which doesn’t exist in Estonia from abroad,” Väärsi utters.

It is pivotal to keep international competence in mind, because it is the only chance to increase new industrial capabilities in Estonia. The majority shareholder of Milworks is Patria, the largest company in the Finnish defence industry, and through them we also participate in Scandinavian industrial networks,” Pärnamäe adds.

Market leader in Europe

Milrem is already the market leader in robotics in Europe as the THeMIS is the most sold vehicle in its size category. Milrem is represented in nine countries, seven of which are NATO members and company plans to enter two more countries this year. Milrem’s main clients are the Netherlands, Norway and the US.

“It is to our advantage that we brought our product to the market earlier than others.  Even in 2014-15 we were considered “weirdoes” and asked why we were doing this and who needs it. Today the competition has increased,” Väärsi notes.

“Our advantage is that we sell already a fifth generation vehicle and we have come up with solutions which worked well also in the extremely complicated conditions in Mali for an entire year. Also our systems have proven their quality with a very demanding client in Holland. In order to be successful in the market, we need to invest a lot in sales activity and be extremely active, not to say aggressive. We also need to closely cooperate with other potential partners in different European countries and to be able to offer complete solutions,” Väärsi explains.

Unique electric-hybrid vehicles

Talking about the advantages of their unmanned vehicles, Väärsi brings out that Milrem’s vehicle is designed as an electric-hybrid. Many competitors only have electricity-based vehicles, which is problematic in military use because there are not many power outlets in the forest. Therefore, the diesel generator is really advantageous. “Secondly, we have a completely new and innovative approach to the architecture of the vehicle, because the entire technical unit is installed into the sides of the vehicle, leaving the central platform empty. I think that to date we are the UGV platform with the most integrated weapons systems in the world bearing our name,” Väärsi believes. “In terms of operational reliability, our vehicles have driven many kilometres and worked for many hours both at the hands of our clients, as well as in tests carried out by us. In Mali, THeMIS drove over a 1000 kilometres per year whilst working for Operation Barkhane. We have nine clients in the world with whom we collaborate on product development and tactical use. Therefore, the information base for making decisions is as broad as possible.”

Cooperates with universities

Milrem cooperates quite intensely with universities in Estonia and elsewhere. Milrem just completed a stage of the smart UTV development project with the University of Tartu and TalTech and is about to start the second stage. The company is also collaborating closely with TalTech on various projects, for example on the 6×6 armoured fighting vehicles.  With the universities of Helsinki and Aalto Milrem is discussing how to use their know-how in the next stages of development of their autonomous AI. The same issue is being discussed with the University of Eindhoven in the Netherlands.


Coping with the coronavirus

According to Väärsi, Milrem has been affected by economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. As Milrem’s customers are located outside Estonia, interaction has been interrupted in the last half a year, some programmes have been cancelled or postponed, but the good thing is that the previously established relationships are still working.

Milworks, on the other hand, hasn’t been significantly affected because the defence forces are working in any situation, admits  Pärnamäe.  “We are also continuing to work on future procurements and wish to be a stable partner for the Defence Forces,” he adds.

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