From ground robots to unmanned air taxis


One of the game changers in warfare is the use of unmanned vehicles, such as drones. Europe is now also investing in smart ground robots with the iMUGS project. The aim of this project is to have self-propelled vehicles carry out tasks together. Two weeks ago, a test took place with high-tech army robots in Belgium. It is the fourth in a series of six demonstrations of the European innovation project. Filip Verhaeghe, CEO and Founder of Sol.One, explains why they participate and what their role is in the project.


The iMUGS project

“Although Sol.One makes advanced control systems for aircraft, the knowledge that we will gather from this project is very transferable to aerospace. We see this as a great research opportunity. We are working on a control system, but this goes a lot further than just letting robots drive autonomously,” explains Filip. “What we want to do in this project does not exist yet.”

“The idea is that we can send out a column of these robots via a manned ground station - a converted jeep for example. Instead of giving instructions to all these machines, you only give an order to the first one and this one then controls the rest.”

The rigs themselves are not new. The Estonian company Milrem, the coordinator of the project, developed them earlier. What is new, is how they work together through a set of artificial intelligence, sensors and sophisticated communication systems.

The deployment of the smart ground robots offers enormous opportunities. “Europe has a long eastern border,” says Filip. “The war in Ukraine shows how important it is to guard it. With soldiers alone, it is a hopeless task. With swarms of robots, you can do much more with a relatively small number of people.”

The goal of iMUGS is to deliver a standardised prototype by the end of this year. A majority of European member states would be interested in buying the system when it is ready. Experts estimate that thousands of such robots could come into circulation in the next 10 to 15 years. “Our technology is only used in the ground station, not in the robots itself. The robots won’t bring revenue to our business, but that’s also not our goal. It’s mainly the research that goes into this that brings us value, the intellectual property. It’s about what we can do with that knowledge in the Urban Air Mobility industry afterwards,” Filip concludes. 


Application in Urban Air Mobility

In a next step, Filip is already thinking further. “In aviation, too, there is a trend towards electric aircraft. This is not about large aircraft, because the batteries you would need to fly those are too big. But a lot is happening with smaller aircraft. Think of aircraft that can carry one to a few people. The potential is enormous,” says Filip. “How do you get from the centre of Los Angeles to the airport? With an air taxi, it would take seven minutes. Even if you pay double, that's still affordable compared to the time you lose on the road.”

According to Filip, this is not science fiction. Companies such as the publicly listed American company Archer or the German company Volocopter are working on it, as is the Chinese company Autoflight. The major bottleneck here, is the availability of pilots. If you want to send a whole bunch of these taxis into the air, who will man them all?

That is why Filip hopes to use the knowledge gained from the iMUGS project to fly those taxis in swarms. Several aircraft - without pilots, but with passengers - would be controlled from one manned station. Because we're talking about potentially very busy air traffic with thousands of these taxis flying around, it is essential that the planes can coordinate well with each other.