COLOGNE, Germany — The European Commission has awarded Estonia and the country’s robotics company Milrem a grant to lead the way on a standard architecture for military unmanned ground vehicles, the company announced.

The deal, worth close to $40 million and signed Dec. 11, formally kicks off a pan-European development for a new generation of battlefield ground robots. Named Integrated Modular Unmanned Ground System, or iMUGS, the project uses Milrem’s THeMIS vehicle as a reference platform for creating a “standardized European-wide ecosystem for aerial and ground platforms,” according to the company.

Also covered by the project is relevant technology in the fields of command and control, communications, sensors, payloads, and algorithms.

The connection to the European Union’s coffers comes through the bloc’s European Defence Industrial Development Programme. Besides Estonia as the lead, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Latvia and Spain also are part of the iMUGS group, adding a combined €2 million (U.S. $2.4 million) to the effort.

The countries each bring their relevant national companies to the table, including Safran Electronics & Defense, Nexter Systems, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, Diehl Defence, and Bittium Wireless.

“Estonia has the honor and a great responsibility taking the lead in this project as nothing on a similar scale has been conducted before,” said Martin Jõesaar, chief of the project office in the Estonian Centre for Defence Investment. “Our goal is not only making iMUGS a one-time effort, but to build it into a base project for future developments. Our long-term goal is that each of the modular systems built will pave a way for further innovation in its field.”

While the sums involved in iMUGS are relatively small in the world of defense programs, the effort has the potential to shape the European market for military robotic vehicles. The initiative is a prime example of defense companies like Milrem, some of them years ago, sensing a chance to position their own offerings firmly in the thicket of European defense priorities.

But the THeMIS robot is not the only game in town. Rheinmetall is equally trying to position its unmanned portfolio in the European market, even without EU backing. In the case of its Mission Master vehicle, the intellectual property belongs to the company’s Canadian division, which makes support through EU channels tricky. Still, the vehicle is being tried by the land forces of several countries on the European continent.

According to Milrem, European countries are expected to need thousands of ground robots during the next 10-15 years, creating a market valued in the billions of euros. “With seven participating nations and key industrial players, the unmanned ground system developed during iMUGS is expected to become the preferred European solution for integrating into armed units,” the company claims.

Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.

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