Takeover of German manufacturer: Rheinmetall re-enters the drone business

Equipping the German Army’s reconnaissance force with new LUNA drones seems to be secured, so a sale of the insolvent German manufacturer EMT to Israel is off the table. The Bundeswehr has also commissioned a study for kamikaze drones, such a system is also offered by Rheinmetall.

Defence contractor Rheinmetall is taking over major parts of insolvent drone manufacturer EMT from Penzberg in Bavaria. This was announced by the company’s Düsseldorf headquarters in a press release this week. The company, founded in 1978 by Hartmut Euer, a graduate engineer, built the LUNA tactical drone for the German armed forces. Originally, Rafael Advanced Defence Systems from Israel was supposed to buy up the company’s bankruptcy assets. This option is now off the table.

Rheinmetall intends to retain the four EMT sites in Bavaria and Schleswig-Holstein and integrate them and their 200 employees into the group structure. The group is thus returning to the drone business. Rheinmetall had developed the KZO („Kleinfluggerät Zielortung“) in the 1990s and sold 61 of these systems to the Army. In 2010, the company also won the contract to fly the Israeli HERON 1 for the Air Force, but gave this contract to EADS-Cassidian two years later. The jointly formed business was merged into the restructured Airbus Group in 2014.

New drone with four times the payload

The acronym LUNA stands for „Airborne Unmanned Close-In Reconnaissance Equipment“. With a two-stroke engine and a wingspan of over four metres, the drone reaches a flying speed of up to 160 kilometres per hour after a catapult launch. It lands with a parachute or in a capture net. The equipment includes an electro-optical video camera, as well as a thermal imaging camera or a digital camera for high-resolution still images. The surveillance technology was optimised by a platform of the Fraunhofer Institute IOSB.

The LUNA has been in the inventory of the Army Reconnaissance Unit since 2003, making it the longest-used drone in the Bundeswehr. Currently, the unit is said to have 84 systems, but by 2013 at least 52 aircraft had to be replaced after crashes. As part of the HUSAR („Highly Efficient Unmanned Medium-Range Reconnaissance System“) project, the drone is to be replaced by a successor. The maximum take-off weight of this LUNA NG („Next Generation“) will increase to 110 kilograms, and the payload of 20 kilograms is four times that of the predecessor model. A total of 65 LUNA NGs were to be procured, in a later version EMT also wanted to integrate vertical take-off capabilities.

According to Rheinmetall, the LUNA NG will also be able to fly in tandem with manned air vehicles; the Bundeswehr is conducting research in the field of this „manned-unmanned teaming“ to integrate armed and unarmed drone swarms. Rheinmetall also wants to market the drone internationally. Such a deal had according to EMT led to it’s bankruptcy after „significant revenue losses“ following an embargo imposed on an unnamed foreign customer.

Bundeswehr interested in „loitering munition“

At one time Rheinmetall also wanted to sell an armed drone system to the Bundeswehr. This WABEP (“ Effective Mean for Stand-off Engagement of Single and Point Targets“) would have consisted of two different aerial drones: Rheinmetall’s KZO was to mark targets, which would then have been destroyed with a HAROP from IAI in Israel. Such kamikaze drones are called „loitering munition“.

The operational readiness of a total of WABEP-42 drones was envisaged from 2013, but after „practical tests“ and the trial engagement of „particularly significant targets“, the Ministry of Defence decided against it in 2012. According to Parliamentary State Secretary Thomas Silberhorn, the WABEP could not have been financed until seven years later, by which time it would have been „technically obsolete“.

In view of the fact that HAROP is still used in military conflicts today and, in the case of the Azerbaijani war of aggression on Armenia, is even said to have contributed to its success, the Bundeswehr might regret the decision taken at the time. Now a possible procurement of „loitering munition“ is back on the table. The Ministry of Defence is having a roadmap drawn up for research and development, and the Bundeswehr has commissioned the German armament service provider AMDC to prepare a study to review systems available on the market. One of the suppliers is Rheinmetall, with Polish kamikaze drones being fired by a newly developed drone tank.

Image: The army flies the LUNA in Mali, among other places, and the insolvent company EMT was to replace the drone with an improved successor system (Bundeswehr/PAO DEU EinsKtgt MINUSMA).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.