When you think of European robotics, Nexter does not jump to mind as a major player. But during this month's Eurosatory show in Paris, the French manufacturer of the VBCI and Aravis armored vehicles and the Leclerc battle tank, among others, plans to change that mindset.
The company's interest in robotics dates back to the 1990s when GIAT Industries, as it was then, participated in the Syrano project with, Sagem and Cap Gemini Sogeti. Only one demonstrator of this small remotely operated tank was made and delivered to the French army in 1999. This foray into robotics came to an abrupt end in early 2000 with the decision to concentrate on its core businesses: armored vehicles, guns and ammunition.
The company was later given responsibility for the upstream studies on robotics when the French procurement agency DGA's BOA network-centric project was launched. Then the French armed forces' involvement in Afghanistan, where improvised explosive devices (IED) have proved so devastating to allied troops, led Nexter into developing specific protection systems.
Today, “we have decided to make significant investments in the small (around 4 kg or 8.8 lb.) ground robots segment,” Olivier Brousmiche, Nexter's director for business development, told DTI in an interview.
Why, when there are so many players in the marketplace? “Because ours is faster, lighter, more powerful, has a greater capacity to evolve and is much, much less expensive,” Brousmiche responds.
The robot to be unveiled at Eurosatory—whose name will have a link to ancient Rome, as do other Nexter products such as the Caesar self-propelled gun—has been in self-funded development for just over a year. Brousmiche says Nexter has been working with French laboratories he would not name but that are claimed are world-renowned.
“We realized that currently available ground robots have a number of problems integrating because they have been designed as stand-alone equipment,” Brousmiche says. “And so we decided to fill this niche and design a robot which would be a sub-system of an existing one, or, in other words, integrate with a vehicle.”
The robot's designers had two major objectives: to keep the robot's procurement cost as low as possible and to make it extremely easy to operate.
“Our conviction is that the infantryman has to be able to concentrate on his mission rather than on manipulating his robot. The robot has to help him, to be an extension of himself and not hinder him in any way; in addition it should be as easy to learn to use as a rifle,” Brousmiche explains. And so one of the robot's principal characteristics is its speed; it has an extremely powerful motor and moves as fast as a running human so that, like a faithful dog, it can “run” with a soldier running for cover and not force its user to wait for the robot to catch up.
In addition, because procurement cost is low enough to make it almost a consumable, “the soldier will not risk his life to go and get it should it have been damaged in some way. He can just leave it behind in the knowledge that it has not cost an arm and a leg,” Brousmiche says. The company would not reveal the price beyond claiming that it would be “an extremely low one.”
The robot, made of synthetic material, is small enough to be carried in the infantryman's backpack or stored in the glovebox of a ground vehicle. It is controlled either from inside the vehicle (of any type, not just a Nexter-designed one) or by a small touchpad strapped to the soldier's sleeve. The robot uses the same technology as video games or smartphones, making it familiar for young soldiers who have been using similar interfaces for leisure most of their lives.
Depending on conditions, the soldier can choose to use the robot with wheels or to slip trackpads on, a tool-free operation as easy as changing the lens on a camera. The robot can be used day or night and in all weather, even after it has fallen into a water-filled hole one meter (3.3 ft.) deep. The current payload allows it to take high-definition video and photographs and to capture sound both indoors and outdoors. In a few months, it will also be able to make a map of the inside of a building.
And—something that Nexter feels is very important—the robot is free of U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations restrictions. That means there is no technology involved which would make any export dependent on U.S. approval.