• Credit: Exail
    Credit: Exail

Exail Robotics Belgium has revealed that the first two remote mine warfare countermeasures platforms for the Belgian and Dutch Navies have been verified and approved by the customer at its facility in Ostend.

The two drones will now be delivered to the parent company’s facility in La Garde, near Toulon, for further testing in the Mediterranean Sea. Once steady-state production is achieved, toolboxes will be delivered directly to the customer from Ostend.

Exail is partnered with France’s Naval Group to supply six Oostende (Ostend) class minehunters to each navy, together with ten robotic Mine Countermeasures (MCM) ‘toolboxes’.

The toolbox approach allows mines to be located, classified, verified and neutralised without the MCM ‘mother ship’ having to place itself or any of its crew in danger. The MCM system being supplied to the two navies is referred to by the manufacturer as a ‘3rd Generation’ mine warfare system.

The Minehunters are being built in France, but each toolbox will be assembled in Exail’s purpose-built factory in Ostend to meet the sovereign requirements of the two countries.

Components of the toolbox include Exail’s Inspector 125 12-metre Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs); A-18M Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV’s); T18-M Towed Synthetic Aperture Sonar Systems; Seascan-M Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs); K-STER C ROV (for mine neutralisation), and containerised MCM Command and Control & Communications systems.

In addition, Exail is supplying UMS Skeldar V-200 unmanned Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) systems, but it can also offer its own IT180 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV).

“An A18 and Seascan have completely been produced here in Belgium with the support of our (Exail) colleagues in Toulon and we expect to deliver our first (Inspector 125) Unmanned Surface Vessel (USV) at the beginning of 2024,” Steven Luys, CEO of Exail Robotics Belgium, explained to ADM.

“We designed this factory in 2020, we built it in 2021, ramped it up in 2022 and I’m proud to say that we have produced our first two drones, which have been verified and accepted by the Belgian Navy.”

Luys said that the facility has been designed to cater for additional production opportunities, should Exail win further work around the world and will also provide support and deeper maintenance for the Belgian and Dutch toolboxes over the life of the program.

“We are already doing more than has been foreseen, for example we do the maintenance for the Dutch Operational Test & Evaluation program – the Dutch have decided to invest in a precursor to the larger rMCM (Remote Mine Countermeasures) program in order for personnel to become acquainted with this new type of stand-off de-mining before the first toolboxes are delivered,” he added.

Exail is also bidding for Defence’s Sea 1905 (Mine Countermeasures and Military Survey) program and is in competition with Saab Australia.

The Belgian Navy decided to specialise in the Mine Countermeasures role some years ago, in response to the tens of thousands of sea mines laid by Germany in its waters during the two World Wars and the thousands of tonnes of ordnance jettisoned into the sea by allied bombers returning from raids.

Ostend is also home to the Belgian and Dutch Naval Academy, which teaches mine warfare, as well as the NATO Naval Mine Warfare Centre of Excellence.

“Belgium has become the No.1 worldwide when it comes to MCM capability and knowledge,” Luys said.

Disclaimer: The writer travelled to France as a guest of Exail.

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