ECA GROUP (FR) builds new drone plant at the Port of Ostend in Flanders

French engineering company ECA GROUP is channeling EUR 10 million into the construction of a 5,000 m² drone factory at the Port of Ostend in Flanders. The new plant will develop and produce maritime drone systems that will be used by the Belgian Navy and the Royal Netherlands Navy for the purpose of mine clearance. “Our drone-based technology will drastically change the face of mine hunting,” assures Steven Luys, CEO of the Belgian ECA GROUP division.

While the new site has yet to be built, it has already earned itself a nomination for Flanders Investment & Trade’s 2021 Foreign Investment of the Year Trophy.  

Detecting danger, safeguarding people

Establised in 1936, ECA GROUP is a long-term expert in robotics and has been developing innovative technological solutions for the detection and clearance of mines. To date, over 30 navies worldwide have used ECA’s technology to make ports and waterways safer. “By using unmanned drones to detect, identify and remove sea mines, this kind of activity becomes less dangerous for the crew involved,” says Steven Luys, CEO of the Belgian ECA GROUP division.

“Thanks to the drones, the navy's mother ship can remain outside the minefield, keeping the crew at a safe distance and significantly reducing the risks. This technology will drastically change the face of mine hunting, making it safer for marines and their ships.”  

“Our drone technology will drastically change the face of mine hunting, making it safer for crews and their ships.”

- Steven Luys, CEO of the Belgian ECA GROUP division

 

It’s not a coincidence the company chose ‘Make sure’ as its tagline. Steven Luys: “It perfectly illustrates that the values of ECA GROUP, which are based on pragmatism and a customer-oriented approach. Because safety matters in all aspects of life, we want to help our clientele make safe and sound decisions.”   

Bursting with talent and innovation

In 2019, ECA GROUP obtained a contract – together with French company Naval GROUP – to supply 12 next-generation minesweepers and dedicated unmanned systems to the Belgian Navy and Royal Netherlands Navy. For this, the Belgium Naval & Robotics consortium was established.

The local division of ECA GROUP in Mouscron and Ostend (Flanders) is responsible for manufacturing the innovative naval drones that will be used to detect, classify, identify and neutralize mines at sea by unmanned vessels. Initially, the drones will serve the Belgian Navy and the Royal Netherlands Navy – both world leaders in the field of mine neutralization – but the idea is to ultimately assemble them for the global market from the Port of Ostend, where ECA GROUP’s new plant will be established.

Apart from the bursting local talent pool, the choice of Ostend, in Flanders, was primarily triggered by pragmatic factors. “Obviously, we wanted to be close to the sea,” says Steven Luys. “But Ostend is also where Eguermin, the Belgian-Dutch Navy’s mine clearance school, is based. There, sailors will be taught to use our innovative drone-based system.”  

“We are pleased to build our factory at the Port of Ostend, near the navy’s headquarters and with direct access to the North Sea.”

- Steven Luys, CEO of the Belgian ECA Group division

Making headway in Flanders 

In Flanders, ECA GROUP is also in great company. The French GROUP will become part of the Blue Cluster, one of Flanders’ spearhead clusters and a network of successful maritime companies and skilled people within the maritime sector.

Steven Luys: “We look forward to working with these key players, leveraging the knowledge that is present within the local blue economy and adding the expertise of ECA GROUP to ensure mutual growth. When it comes to mine countermeasures, the Belgian Navy and Royal Netherlands Navy are NATO’s flagships. ECA GROUP’s innovative technology will add to that. Through the marine school, all drone and demining knowhow will percolate throughout the ecosystem.”

“Thanks to the excellent support of organizations such as Flanders Investment & Trade and Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship, our early days in Flanders have been extremely welcoming,” Steven Luys recalls. “These agencies put us in touch with the right people and funding partners. To give the investment project an additional boost, Flanders is even granting EUR 1 million in structural transformation support.”  

Recruiting continues 

Scheduled for go-live in 2022, the new ECA GROU site will be located along the Sloepenlaan in Ostend on the premises of the former Beliard shipyard. A concession agreement was concluded with the Port of Ostend for 30 years.

In addition to constructing the new plant, ECA Group is currently recruiting at both its design office and HQ in Mouscron as well as at its new site in Ostend and at various locations in France. “In Ostend, we will mainly recruit technical staff and workers. In two to three years, we expect to employ more than 70 people at the new plant,” concludes Steven Luys.

Facts and figures

  • Main activities: development and production of demining systems and associated robots
  • Founded in: ECA GROUP (1936)
  • Parent company: Groupe Gorgé
  • Global HQ: France
  • Sites in Belgium: Brussels, Mouscron, Ostend
  • Number of employees worldwide: 700
  • Number of employees in Belgium: 14
  • Investment amount in Flanders for this project: 10 to 14 million
  • Additional jobs created in Flanders through this project: up to 70