“Belgium is a lead nation in the fight against naval mines. Your forces are recognized worldwide for their expertise and you welcome ,with EGUERMIN, the NATO center of excellence in this domain. It is therefore very logical that Naval Group and its partner ECA Robotics have decided to propose and develop their innovations here,”
Naval Group Programs Director Olivier de la Bourdounnaye
“Our Navy and but also and above all our industry must be proud of this globally recognized position. these two laboratories that we are inaugurating today will develop new technologies that will enable us to deal with two major threats: naval mines and cyberattacks,”
Belgian Minister of Defence Ludivin Dedonder
« The projects that have been presented today can only make me happy. This is an example that could not be more concrete of what we intend to lead to wider scale in various security and defense areas”, the MoD added. These two labs are the result of a six-digit investment from Naval Group, which could further increase its footprint in Brussels given the incremental approach adopted for these two labs.
One lab to bring them all
Opened in November 2021, the MCM Lab today brings together 12 Belgian companies, startups and universities. Besides Naval Group Belgium and its partner in the rMCM program, ECA Robotics Belgium, it includes among others the Free University of Brussels, the University of Gand, the Royal Military Academy (RMA), as well as dotOcean, Space Application Systems and Anglo Belgian Corporation (ABC). It is only the 3rd R&D lab Naval Group opens outside of France, after the ones in Singapore and Australia.
Admiral De Beurme welcomed what he called « a big step for our Navy and, more specifically for our future concepts, mine warfare dorctines and capabilities. MCM Lab will push industry, research institutes and Navy to even think beyond mine warfare ! ».
Among the current partners, five are also taking part in the MIRICLE (Mine Risk Clearance for Europe) project launched in December 2021. Gathering 19 partners from 10 European countries, MIRICLE is lead by Naval Group Belgium. It received a 8,99 million € ( $9,4 million USD) funding through the European Defence Industrial Development Programme (EDIDP).
During 24 months, MIRICLE will address the main components of a stand-off mine warfare solution such as a mission system, communication network, Mine Countermeasures (MCM) vessel and robots, using artificial intelligence for supporting decision making. It will enable significant improvements for tomorrow and after tomorrow MCM missions.
In another interesting move, Naval Group Belgium plans to launch a new challenge dedicated to Belgian startups. The footprint is continually growing. Launched with only four people last year, it should have 10 employees this summer and eventually double this number by the end of 2022.
Next gen detectors and noise reducer
The MCM Lab team did not wait for an official ceremony to start working. Several studies are on track for months, among which three were highlighted yesterday. One of them is being conducted by the Univeristy of Gand and sustained by ECA, Naval Group and the RMA. It specifically looks for technical answers to the problem of drifting mines, which the war in Ukraine has brought back into the spotlight.
The chosen solution is an small UAV carrying a range of sensors and positioning systems, particularly thermal camera, a LiDAR and a multispectral camera. For now, the team is conducting feasibility checks, paving the way for future technologies. First tests were realized in a swimming pool. The first at-sea tests are expected in a near future with the help of the Belgian Navy.
Another 5 M€ project called “Sub-bottom scanning sonar” (SBSS) led by ECA Robotics Belgium is focusing on detection and classification of buried and hidden mines. It also involves the RMA and the Belgian companies Deltatec and Multitel. It is partly funded (60%) by the Pôle MecaTech project. An at-sea demonstration was already performed offshore Ostende and Zeebrugge with a prototype sonar on a Belgian Navy’s Tripartite-class minehunter vessel. The project will last for two years, with the first 24 months concentrating on the hardware. It mainly relies on an horizontal sonar designed for covering a large field of view, a quite unusual design when most of the similar systems uses a “cigar-like” shape.
In a third time, the MCM Lab is eyeing on technologies capable of reducing vessel vibrations and the noise they cause. The capability should be very interesting against acoustic mines. The project benefited from the delivery and commissioning of the Belgian Navy new research ship Belgica, just 10 meters smaller than the rMCM mothership, to gather a first batch of data.
Protecting the « digital ship »
“The maritime and naval sectors have specificity that require adapting existing solutions, or even developing specially designed new ones”, Olivier de la Bourdounnaye added. With most of the rMCM capability being unmanned, communications and data links will more than ever require the highest levels of protection.
Mastering cyber risk is therefore a key element of mission success and the war in Ukraine has proven it once again: cyber attacks are constantly used alongside kinetic means. The threat is taken into account by Belgium, which plans to create a Cyber Command. An initiative to which Naval Group is associated by transferring its cyber specialists working on mine warfare in Belgium.
Last year, Naval Group Belgium launched a CYBER Lab, just one floor below the MCM Lab. A growing team of developers – they should be 4-5 by the end of the year – is for example adapting the Cyber Management System (CyMS) solution to mine warfare constrains.
As the rMCM mothership will carry computer racks to store and process data, they are also thinking on how to protect them and allow non-expert personnel to operate them. Besides naval mine warfare applications, the CYBER Lab allows Naval Group to get closer to the Belgian cyber company NVISO. Both are partnering through the European project PANDORA, which aims at designing and implementing an open technical solution for real-time threat hunting and incident response, focusing on endpoint protection, as well as information sharing.
Everything that is created by the CYBER.Lab will not only be used for mine warfare applications. Future technologies, could be used in other field, including civilian applications such as port infrastructures protection.