ECA Group to Build Naval Drone Plant in Ostend to Support Belgian-Dutch Minesweeper Program

ECA Group will build its new plant in the port of Ostend, Belgium in order to carry out the contract to supply their unmanned systems for the 12 minesweepers being built for the Belgian and Dutch navies, the company announced.

In March 2019, Belgium selected Belgium Naval & Robotics consortium, composed of Naval Group and ECA Robotics, for the supply of 12 mine-hunting vessels, along with the payloads, to the Belgian and Dutch navies under a  two billion euro program. The contract for the procurement was awarded in May.

The 2800-ton militarized motherships will be built by Naval Group while the unmanned systems will be delivered by the ECA Group. Six of the vessels ordered are destined for the Belgian Navy, while the other six will be delivered to the Dutch/Royal Netherlands Navy (RNLN).

The vessels will be equipped with a total of approximately 100 drones, constituting approximately ten drone (toolbox) systems. The unmanned systems clear the mines autonomously and are controlled from the mother ship. Due to this, the mother ship and therefore its crew, stay away from the danger zone.

ECA Robotics Belgium, the Belgian subsidiary of ECA Group, will manufacture the next generation of naval drones for this contract, and also for future export sales, at its plant in Ostend. Port Ostend granted ECA Group a concession for the building of the factory on the former site of Beliard in the port area. The plant with a surface of 5000 m² will be built on this location and will be operational in 2022.

The investment for the construction of the factory and the start of production represents around 10 million euros. All the naval drones (underwater and surface) of ECA group to be delivered to the Belgian and Dutch navies will be produced in this factory: the A18-M autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV), the T18-M towed sonars, the INSPECTOR 125 unmanned surface vessels (USV) and the Mine Identification & Destruction Systems (MIDS) composed of SEASCAN and K-STER C remotely operated vehicles (ROV). The plant will also manufacture launch & recovery systems as well as surface equipment.

ECA Group’s share of this program represents approximately 450 million euros and this contract is the largest ever won by the company. The 10-year program will start with a design phase that will last approximately 3 years before the production and delivery phases of the drone systems.

Steven Luys, general manager of ECA Robotics Belgium explains:

“In parallel with the construction of our plant, ECA Group is looking for various profiles (including engineers) for the two Belgian sites of its subsidiary ECA Robotics Belgium: Hainaut in Wallonia where the design office and the headquarters will be established, and Ostend in Flanders to support plant operations. We are mainly looking for technical staff and workers for our site in Ostend. The plant is expected to employ over 70 staff in 2-3 years’ time.”

“Since its establishment in 1936, ECA Group has been a leader in the field of innovation and develops innovative technological solutions for the detection and clearance of mines. To date, over 30 navies worldwide use these solutions to make waterways safer. We are pleased to build our factory in the Port of Ostend, near the navy and with direct access to the North Sea.”

Charlotte Verkeyn, chair of the administrative board of the Port of Ostend explains:

“ECA Group choses the port of Ostend for various reasons. The activities of the group are perfectly in line with our expansion vision in various markets. We are strengthening our economic and social system. The second reason is that they can find everything they need in Ostend: the premises, the quays, an easily accessible site and a network of companies.”

Dirk Declerck, CEO of the Port of Ostend explains:

“The entire team is working hard on this project since the beginning of last year. This contract proves that we can fulfil our mission: the port as a driver of sustainable employment. ECA Group is looking to recruit over 70 interesting profiles, which makes our region attractive to the workforce.”

Bart Tommelein, mayor of the city of Ostend:

“Thanks to this new activity, Ostend proves to be an international knowledge centre. Maritime Innovation is one of our fundamental cornerstones. The presence of ECA Group will accelerate research and development in our port area. I thank them for their confidence and guarantee the full cooperation of the port and the city of Ostend in order to ensure the smooth running of the company.”

Belgian-Dutch Minehunter/Frigate Acquisition Programme

In June 2018, Belgium and the Netherlands have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for the purchase of new frigates and mine countermeasures (MCM) vessels for the navies of two countries.

Belgium is taking the lead regarding the purchase of 12 mine countermeasures vessels, six of which will be for the Netherlands, and the accompanying unmanned systems. The Netherlands is taking the lead with respect to the purchase of the multipurpose frigates. As the leading party, it will enter into a contract for four frigates, two of which will be for Belgium. This was agreed as per an MoU for the Common Procurement of Vessels, signed between Defence Ministers from Belgium & the Netherlands, on Dec. 2016.

The new MCM vessels will replace RNLN’s six Tripartite-class mine warfare vessels known in its service as Alkmaar-class minehunters. In the case of the Belgian Navy, the newly acquired vessels will not only replace the six Tripartite-class minehunters but also the command and logistical support ship, Godetia (A960).

The New MCM ships will include a range of unmanned systems including unmanned surface (USV), aerial (UAV) and underwater vehicles (UUV) alongside towed sonars and remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs) for faster and safer mine identification and neutralization. The vessels will have to protect the shipping lanes and are deployed within the framework of NATO.

The Belgian Navy expects delivery of its first vessel in 2023 while the RNLN is scheduled to receive its new MCM vessel no earlier than 2025.

For the frigates, the Dutch Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO) requested a bid from local shipyard Damen Schelde Naval Shipbuilding and Thales Netherlands. Regarding the MCM vessels, several European designs are competing including Saab MCMV 80, BMT Group Venari 85 and Sea Naval Solutions Deviceseas.

The new frigates will replace the Karel Doorman-class (M-class) multi-purpose frigates in service with the RNLN and the Belgian Navy. The new frigates are planned to fulfill a general-purpose role with anti-submarine warfare (ASW) as its specialty.

The first frigate will be delivered to the Royal Netherlands Navy in 2024, while the first frigate for the Belgian Navy will be delivered in 2027.

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