Text: Sven Paulus

Milrem’s journey: From bus repairs to defense industry

Using fighting robots on the battlefield is a common theme in sci-fi. As we've seen in Ukraine, flying drones are widely used for dropping grenades to the enemy trenches or for the unmanned suicide missions. But the tank battle between unmanned robot-tanks is yet to be seen by the human kind. It will probably happen in some conflict in the next ten years. That's how far we have come from Bronze-age chariots thanks to an Estonian defense industry company.

How did Milrem get started?

Kuldar Väärsi (KV): It all began when the bus company SEBE introduced new buses on the Tallinn Tallinn, the largest city and capital of Estonia (population 440 000). -Tartu route. This 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. 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 [contract] 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. The development work began in the autumn of 2014 and already in September 2015 we presented our Tracked Hybrid Modular Infantry System or THeMIS in London. In 2017, we split the company into two. Milworks focuses on repairs and maintenance and Milrem Robotics on robotics.

How many repair shops does Milworks have and what exactly is repaired there?

Ingvar Pärnamäe (IP): Currently we have workshops in Võru Town in the SE of Estonia(pop.13,000). , Tapa and Tallinn Tallinn, the largest city and capital of Estonia (population 440 000). . For quite some time already Milworks is not just a repair company but participates in more complex rebuilding and overhaul projects, digitalisation and projects requiring engineering know-how. It is our ambition to offer a full maintenance service in the life-cycle of military vehicles and weapon systems.
Milrem Robotics produces unmanned vehicles for both the civil and military fields. What has your development work been like?

KV: In the military field we 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 we developed the product Multiscope UGV which is meant for civilian purposes such as the fire and rescue services, mining and forestry. We are 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. 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 we are increasingly a software development company. Today we work in Tallinn Tallinn, the largest city and capital of Estonia (population 440 000). and Tartu and there has been a small engineering office in Sweden for the last two years. Recently we founded a company in Finland and we are 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.

IP: 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.

Milrem’s strategy is to be the robotics market leader in Europe. How do you plan to achieve this?

KV: I think we already are the market leader in robotics in Europe because THeMIS is the most sold vehicle in its size category. We are represented in nine countries, seven of which are NATO members and, hopefully, we will enter two more countries this year. Our main clients are the Netherlands, Norway and the USA. 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.

Our advantage is that we already sell 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.

What are the advantages of your product in comparison to unmanned vehicles created by your competitors?

KV: In terms of technological advantages, our 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.

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.

What is your cooperation with universities like?

KV: In Estonia and elsewhere the cooperation is quite intense. For example, we just completed a stage of the smart UTV development project with the University of Tartu University of Tartu - Tartu Ülikool is an Estonian higher education institute. and TalTech and we are about to start the second stage. We are also collaborating closely with TalTech on various projects, for example on the 6x6 armoured fighting vehicles. With the universities of Helsinki and Aalto we are discussing how to use their know-how in the next stages of development of our autonomous AI. The same issue is being discussed with the University of Eindhoven in the Netherlands.

How did the Corona crisis influenced the activities of Milrem and Milworks?

IP: It hasn’t really impacted us very much, because the Defence Forces are working in any situation. We are also continuing to work on future procurements and wish to be a stable partner for the Defence Forces.

KV: Milrem has indeed felt the impact. As our customers are outside Estonia, interaction has been interrupted in the last half a year. The relations we had already established earlier are still working, but many programmes have been cancelled or postponed. We also had to adjust our budget. It is complicated to test our equipment outside Europe, although we were able to do it in Italy. At the same time we have transferred some training for our Singapore partners onto the online environment.

The article was published first in Life in Estonia.

Edited for web by eesti.life.