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Over the summer, the inaugural “UK-France Industry Day” was held in central London. Although innocent sounding, this was the first meeting between the UK and French military industry following the signing of a new “defence” treaty last November. A key element of this new military co-operation between France and the UK is the proposed development of a new combat drone. While it is still at the preliminary stage, BAE Systems’ decision to tie up with French firm Dassault to jointly offer the “Telemos” drone for the contact has provoked a furious reaction from their European rival, EADS, who want to win funds for their own proposal based on their “Talarion” drone.
EADS do not want to be left out of what many see as perhaps the key market in the global arms trade. While the new Anglo-French drone contract is estimated to be worth £1bn-£2bn, the global drone market over the next three years alone has recently been predicted to be worth around $14bn. With Israeli companies and US drone giant, General Atomics, already firmly established in the drone market, winning funds to develop a future European combat drone is vital as many observers, and British defence minister Peter Luff, have predicted that there will be no more “manned” aircraft developed after this current generation; the future they suggest lies with the drone.
Meanwhile, the awkwardly-named ASTRAEA (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment) programme continues trying to persuade the UK authorities to allow drones to fly in UK airspace “without the need for restrictive or specialised conditions of operation.” The programme has a £62m budget: £31m from the tax-payer; and the other £31 from a consortium including BAE Systems, QinetiQ, Rolls-Royce and Thales (the other 50%).
Both the ministry of defence and the military industry recognise they have a “public perception” issue when it comes to drones and there will clearly be a push to highlight the fact that drones can be used for peaceful purposes such as environmental surveys, monitoring protection of wildlife habitats and disaster relief. While it is certainly true that drones have the potential to be used for good, the companies behind ASTRAEA do not have a track record of using technology for peaceful and useful purposes.