The European Commission on Monday outlined plans to find common projects for its defense and aerospace industries to drive innovation in sectors ranging from quantum computing to artificial intelligence.
“The global technology race is accelerating,” said Commission Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager. “The point of this action plan is exactly to strengthen Europe’s technological competitive edge and support the industrial base.”
The strategy includes developing a drone program, a communications satellite system aimed at cutting out internet blackspots and a space traffic management framework to reduce the risk of collisions between debris and satellites in space. “We’re becoming serious about technological sovereignty,” said an EU official involved in drafting the plan.
With no new financing available, projects will be eligible for money from the €8 billion European Defense Fund agreed as part of the 2021-2027 budget negotiations concluded last year. While other EU funding streams could be tapped, that alone won’t be sufficient.
Asked to spell out the funding options, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said the European Space Agency could help pay for the communications satellite project, while noting some EU countries such as France had already backed the scheme. A consortium led by Airbus will deliver a feasibility study later this year with further details on the satellite scheme.
“He is hoping that member states will give from their own recovery fund pocket,” said one EU diplomat of Breton.
A new EU Observatory of Critical Technologies will be tasked with issuing reports every two years pinpointing the bloc’s strengths and vulnerabilities compared to its global rivals, and assessing the potential of new technologies.
Vestager cited innovations such as the seatbelt, first developed from a fighter jet ejector seat, as examples of how military and space research could lead to breakthroughs with practical uses in the civilian world.
“We have seen radio waves used in military labs end up in kitchen ovens and Velcro fasteners initially developed for daily clothes used in space ships,” said Vestager, adding that technology developed for satellite imagery was now being used to spot bladder cancer.
“That’s the right direction of travel, to have a more integrated approach,” said Fabrice Pothier, chief strategy officer at consultancy Rasmussen Global. “There is no such thing as a benign technology these days.”
Pothier said Breton had to maintain a difficult balancing act when it came to financing, with the bloc’s space budget taken up in maintaining the Galileo geo-navigation system and Copernicus earth observation network.
The strategy could lead to targeted EU state aid programs, industrial alliances or even efforts to block foreign takeovers of strategic companies working on frontier innovations, the EU official said.
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