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From cinema to war, how Thales is inventing the army of the future

The “French revolution”, as Pascal Sécretin calls it, was born at the bottom of a drawer. While this former paratrooper officer, who notably served in Afghanistan, discovers in 2012 the basics of office life at the defense manufacturer Thales, the fifty-year-old unearths by chance a binder with dozens of patents. And among them, a thick file of 200 pages challenges him. “There were matrices and a lot of lines of calculations… I hesitated a bit before embarking on this file, but I did well because there was a real nugget inside”, recalls again the one who studied engineering (Centrale Supélec) in parallel with his elite military course (Saint-Cyr; Ecole de Guerre).

In this famous pocket, he finds in particular a series of documents which lay the foundations of a tool still unknown to the military: software capable of reproducing the geographical coordinates of a target, without satellite assistance, by simply using photos taken by the soldier in the field with his binoculars. “Unheard of in the military industry”, thinks Pascal Sécretin then. This is why he contacts the engineer author of the patent and asks him to come pitch “without filter” his idea in every detail. And his conviction is quickly made: he holds a new tool that could revolutionize the life of the soldier in high intensity combat.

US Navy SEALs want it

After hundreds of hours of development and “grey” work – part of the experiments are imagined on their free time by collaborators on weekends – this famous “VisioLoc” (the brand is registered in 2020) is finally embarked on Sophie, the multifunction thermal camera invented by Thales. A prototype was even presented across the Atlantic a month ago to the “Navy SEALs”, the special forces of the American Navy who were amazed by French technology and would like to equip themselves quickly. “I also had contact with people who train Ukrainians and they told me that in certain areas no equipment could be used because of GPS jammers. This is not the future, it is already the reality of the field”, points out Pascal Sécretin.

In the Thales laboratories in Saint-Héand, more than 110,000 night vision binoculars and 16,000 thermal cameras have already been produced

In the Thales laboratories in Saint-Héand, more than 110,000 night vision binoculars and 16,000 thermal cameras have already been produced

Sylvain Madelon

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Concretely, Sophie, the visual companion of the soldiers, is able “to recognize a tank at 6 kilometers, day and night, while remaining within firing range of modern anti-tank missiles”, details Pascal Sécretin. A decisive advantage because coupled with VisioLoc mapping, “the firing adjustment time, which can take up to 20 minutes, is divided by three between the request for support by the tactical commander and the commitment of the unit artillery”, adds the former soldier. With a total weight of less than 3 kg, this optical Swiss army knife embeds the latest cyber-secured technologies and greatly lightens the soldier’s backpack. This is why Thales is betting big on this innovation, of which it is preparing to launch several thousand units in production at its factory in Saint-Héand in the Loire.

It is in fact in this village of 3,600 inhabitants, perched on a hill opposite the Monts du Lyonnais, not far from Saint-Etienne, that the 300 employees of the site work in particular in the “clean rooms”, equipped with their blouses and their charlotte protecting the products from the slightest dust. Because the work of optronics, combining optics and electronics, requires precision and protection. “We have been producing exceptional equipment for infantrymen here for 20 years, in particular a whole range of night vision goggles”, specifies Gérard Frison, the site’s industrial director. On the 10,000 square meters of the factory, glasses and lenses are shaped sometimes more than 200 hours for a single piece. This is a major investment for Thales, which injects one billion euros into R&D each year and achieves 50% of its Defense turnover (11.2 billion euros in 2021, including 1 billion euros just for defense). ‘optronics) for export.

Under the gaze of the former owner, Pierre Angénieux

To control its production and meet the new rates required by the Directorate General for Armaments, Thales maintains close ties with its local subcontractors. Certain critical components such as optical tubes, with very high added value, are thus sourced from other French specialists, in particular the Corrèze SME Photonis which had made the headlines in the news during the pandemic since the company had almost been bought out. by American investors before the French government vetoed it for industrial sovereignty reasons.

“One of our specialties is anti-reflection on lenses. It sometimes takes 200 passages on a single lens to obtain an optimal result. We do it ourselves and this know-how comes directly from the activity history of the site: the manufacture of cinema lenses”, explains Bertrand Boismoreau, the director of the establishment bought by Thales in 1994. From film cameras to night vision goggles or the high vision screen of the Rafale, there is no there are indeed only a few steps to climb to change production lines. And regardless of the purpose of the product, whether civil or military (Defence accounts for 80% of the activity), the quality of the products is controlled by the same teams, under the eye of the photos of the former master of places, Pierre Angénieux.

Pierre Angénieux poses with Isabelle Huppert and his technical Oscar obtained in 1989

Pierre Angénieux poses with Isabelle Huppert and his technical Oscar obtained in 1989

MS

Native of the village, the engineer-optician whose lenses have been used by the greatest filmmakers in the world (Jean-Luc Godard, Sidney Lumet, Jean-Jacques Annaud…), even received 3 technical Oscars in Hollywood, including the last in 1989 handed over to actress Isabelle Huppert. “Without the Angénieux zooms, there would not have been the New Wave”, even advances Jean-Yves Poulain, former chief operator and technical adviser to Thales for optics.

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Often intended for the rental market, these very high performance zooms cost from 20,000 to 100,000 euros each and continue to turn on the sets. “Annettethe film which won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival last year, was shot with a 50-year-old Angénieux lens,” enthuses Jean-Yves Poulain again. Pierre Angénieux, the inventor Retrofocus in the 1950s, has never closed the door to a form of duality in his activity. Already in the 1960s and 1970s, he had collaborated with NASA to allow the first images of the Moon to be captured during missions Apollo The heritage of its know-how, perpetuated by Thales engineers, today equips tens of thousands of soldiers around the world.


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