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a shadow behind the interior ministry's tender

A police officer monitors the border between France and Germany using a drone in Strasbourg on April 9. FREDERICK FLORIN / AFP

In the context of intensive use of drones by the police and gendarmerie in order to enforce the confinement directive, the publication, Sunday, April 12, of a call for tenders for the purchase of 650 aircraft by the Interior Ministry could hardly go unnoticed.

However, the impressive purchase order, issued to equip the police, the gendarmerie and the civil protection, has nothing to do with the epidemic of Covid-19, assured the ministry to BFM-TV. It arises from the grouping of the needs of several administrations which, usually, each carry out their own competitive bidding operations.

On the other hand, the specifications of this invitation to tender are the subject of veiled but acerbic criticism from French industrialists. Cybersecurity precautions are neglected, they say, and economic patriotism may be undermined for the benefit of Chinese number one in the industry, DJI.

Monitoring and recognition

With a total value of 4 million euros, the needs of the ministry cover three batches of drones intended for observation and reconnaissance. “The objective is identical: to see without being seen”sums up an expert close to the case. Without giving more details, Place Beauvau confirms in a word that this material is part of a dynamic initiated well before the health crisis and which sees a growing number of public services intervening in the field of security – surveillance of firefighting events – use remotely controlled devices.

A first batch concerns the acquisition for 175,000 euros of nano drones weighing less than 50 g, intended for special intervention forces, such as the GIGN. With its Black Hornet, which will equip the French army, only the American FLIR is capable of providing this kind of micro-helicopter that fits in the palm of your hand. Another batch, worth 1.5 million, plans to purchase 66 large drones (up to 8 kg) for the surveillance of events or static installations.

The third lot, the largest in value (1.8 million euros), is talked about. It covers 565 “everyday drones”, in other words quadricopters close to the products that the general public can obtain for 1,000 to 2,000 euros. The police, gendarmerie and civil security services add thermal sensors and very sophisticated cameras.

A policeman monitors road traffic on highway 26 between Troyes and Châlons-en-Champagne, on April 11.
A policeman monitors road traffic on highway 26 between Troyes and Châlons-en-Champagne, on April 11. FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI / AFP

However, in this area, competition is much more intense because the manufacturers are numerous and national susceptibilities exacerbated. We can for example cite the French companies Parrot, Novadem, Aeraccess, Azur Drones or even the American Skydio. ” It’s problematic that this tender overlooks cybersecurity, whether it’s the origin of the components or their technological content. And it is equally worrying that nothing has been planned to respect a certain economic patriotism “Is indignant the representative of an industrialist on condition of anonymity.

Without questioning the legal regularity of the invitation to tender, the latter ended up delivering the substance of his thought: ” Everything has been put together for the Chinese DJI to win the game, it is striking. The same source argues that, launched at the beginning of the year by the Directorate General of Armaments (DGA), a call for tenders for a first tranche of two hundred drones imposed strict constraints on the origin of the components. The military also demanded that research and development of drones be carried out in Europe.

World number one in civil drones, DJI is the subject of growing distrust on the part of the American federal authorities, who have started – without always succeeding – to ban its products, suspected of allowing the Chinese political power to divert to its profit from strategic information, which the company contests.

A DJI drone used by Meriden, Connecticut police to remind people of the rules for social distancing from the coronavirus epidemic.
A DJI drone used by Meriden, Connecticut police to remind people of the rules for social distancing from the coronavirus epidemic. Dave Zajac / AP

A hostile attitude also perceptible in Canada and which is not without echo among the staffs of certain European armies. Ultra-dominant in the civilian drone market, DJI – nicknamed “the Shenzhen Apple” – has been able to multiply technological innovations and cut prices to disarm competition. Faced with the collapse of the leisure drone market, the Chinese firm is now focusing most of its efforts on professional, civil and military applications to the point of occupying a position of quasi-monopoly on the so-called drone market. Daily “. The Mavic, a flagship drone of the Chinese firm, is today widely used by French police and gendarmerie to enforce containment.

Parrot in the United States

Still the European leader in civil drones but engaged in a delicate recovery operation, Parrot said it did not yet know if it would follow up on the invitation to tender launched by the Home Office. The French firm can at least note that its efforts to adapt to the very strict regulations decreed by the American authorities are not in vain. In a press release published on April 15, Parrot announced that it had been retained by the United States Department of Defense in the United States for ” develop prototypes of short-range reconnaissance drones for military use

Associated with his American partner NEOTech, the French will install a production line in the United States in July with the hope of being entrusted with mass production after the call for tenders launched by the US Army.

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