Where East meets West

IMAV 2011 is short for International Micro Air Vehicle conference and flight competition and is held this week at the Dutch army base in ’t Harde. “Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs) are small flying robotic systems. With their light weight and small size, they form ideal platforms for both research and real-world applications, both civil and military. The development of MAVs requires advanced knowledge from areas such as electronics, mechanics, aerodynamics, navigation and control, and many more”, explains the IMAV website.

It is organised by the Technical University Delft, military electronics producer Thales Nederland and D-CIS Lab, a partnership including TNO, Thales Nederland and the universities of Amsterdam (UvA), Delft and Tilburg. Main sponsors include the Ministry of Defence, the Dutch national police as well as Thales Nederland.

At first sight IMAV 2011 looks like a Dutch get-together of scientific researchers and the Dutch aerospace and defence community, however closer inspection reveals a rather interesting mixture of other parties, including the US military and researchers from Russia, China and Iran.

The conference is supported by all major research organisations of the Pentagon: USAITC-A, (the US Army International Technology Centre-Atlantic), the Office of Naval Research (the research arm of the US Navy), and the European Office of Aerospace Research & Development (EOARD), part of the Air Force Research Laboratory.

One of the papers presented is a coproduction between researchers from Delft University and Beihang University of Beijing on ‘Wing flexibility effects in clap‐and‐fling

The flight competition focuses on three aspects: all-weather flight capabilities; higher levels of autonomy indoors and outdoors; and the use of multiple MAVs. There are both indoor and outdoor competitions with teams not only from European institutes, but also no less than seven teams from Iran – out of a total of 23 – including from the Isfahan University of Technology; the Islamic Azad University‐Khomeinishahr Branch; the university of Tehran; and the Mechatronics Research Laboratory which is connected to Qazvin Islamic Azad University.

The combination of hi-tech advanced scientific knowledge with the strong military and state security links that go with remotely controlled vehicles, as well as the presence of teams from countries that receive special interest from the Dutch government, makes one wonder how many secret agents and export control officials walk around this week in ’t Harde.

On the one hand it must be extremely interesting for western government officials to get updates on the latest Asian research in unmanned vehicles. But of course it works the other way around as well: China and Iran will be equally interested to see what they can learn from their European counterparts – which is a major concern of the Dutch intelligence service AIVD. Also, Dutch sanctions against both countries imply limitations on the level of cooperation when it comes to the exchange of strategic technology.

Earlier the Dutch government appeared to follow a rather strict interpretation of UN sanctions against Iran, even making careers of Iranian exiles at faculties of physics of Dutch universities nearly impossible. China on its part faces an EU arms embargo (and much stricter US export controls) since 1989, though pressure is mounting to lift the European sanctions.

The rapid development of unmanned aircraft and its great potential in surveillance operations would make you wonder whether cooperation with both the US military and Chinese and Iranian technology institutes is such a good idea. Where the US considers unmanned aircraft not only as crucial spy technology, it uses the larger types for almost daily targeted killings of so-called terror suspects in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Then of course why should China and Iran not use the technology to their advantage, to improve surveillance on potential dissidents, or to increase the lethality of their future unmanned air force.

Apparently Dutch authorities don’t see that much of a security risk.


[FS, 14 September 2011]