ECA Group is celebrating its 80th anniversary in 2016
Founded in 1936 by Paul Rozycki and Marcel Gianoli, ECA is celebrating its 80 years of existence in 2016. Marcel Gianoli, an aeronautics engineer, started his career in the 1920s working for the Letord aircraft manufacturer in Meudon (France) where the Arc-en-Ciel (Rainbow) airplanes were built, of which a model was famously flown by the French aviator Jean Mermoz across the South Atlantic in 1933.
Marcel Gianoli founded the ECA company (Etudes et Constructions Aéronautiques) in Meudon (France) in 1936. At that time Mr. Gianoli managed the technical aspects of the company’s business, while Mr. Rozycki took care of management and sales. At the start, the accent was placed on innovation; Messrs. Gianoli and Rozycki registered many patents during ECA’s early years (between 1936 and 1950, 100 patents were filed by the handful of people that made up the company at that time): patents on piloting, managing flying objects, and steering systems… some of which are probably still implemented in today’s aircraft.
During this period, ECA created numerous components including the “Autoptère” rudder that automatically controlled the angle of incidence or the drift of heavier-than-air aircraft without the use of any energy except that supplied by the resulting air current.
The company became specialized in airborne targets and soon acquired a genuine expertise in the field of towed airborne targets. Subsequently, airborne targets became automated and, in April 1940, a first radio-controlled airborne target project for training pilots was presented to the French Navy, thus marking the beginnings of robotics.
At the end of the 1950s, all the ingredients were united for ECA to become both the major player in aeronautics that you know in Toulouse and the expert in robotics. ECA has in-depth knowledge of mechanics and keeps up to date with new technological developments in electronics, automatic control systems and computer science.
Having developed skills in the manufacturing of aeronautic parts and equipped itself with a mechanical production tool for its own needs, ECA machines complex parts from forged aluminum for aeronautics for prestigious customers including Dassault, Matra, the French Air Force’s aeronautical division as well as Messier-Bugatti. This enabled the building of 500 precursors of remote-controlled and guided missiles (ECA 27, ECA 20, ECA 57…).
At this time, ECA employed a total number of approximately 140 people.
In parallel, ECA developed its activities in automatic control systems and computer science at the same time as market requirements and technological advances. For computer systems, ECA became a leading player in the 1980s for embedded systems, which later became SYSECA.
Until the mid-1960s, ECA was mainly involved in aeronautics.
The company had then extensive experience in subsonic aerodynamics which would prove to be crucial 10 years later in its development in the underwater world thanks to the laws of hydrodynamics that are similar to those of subsonic aerodynamics. The company’s expert in hydrodynamics today, in 2016, was trained by Mr. Darches in the 1980s, who himself was trained in aerodynamics by the founders when he joined ECA.
At the end of the 1960s, based on its expertise in mechanics, automatic control systems and computer science, ECA made its entrance in the nuclear program developed by the French president, General Charles de Gaulle. ECA was charged with the development of a 1:10-scale model of a ballistic missile submarine in order to test hydrodynamic shapes. Testing took place in the St. Tropez (France) area and ECA set up an office in a country house in nearby Ramatuelle to handle these activities.
Specialized in robotics, in contact with the personnel from the DCAN (French Naval Arms and Shipbuilding Division) in St. Tropez that had an idea for a demonstrator for an underwater mine-sweeping robot, ECA was subcontracted by the French Defense Ministry's General Delegation for Armaments (DGA) for the development of the PAP (Poisson Autopropulsé Piloté), or “self-propelled guided fish”, the world’s first underwater mine-sweeping robot. The first underwater mine-sweeping robot, PAP 104, was created in 1970.
The DGA ordered from us a preliminary fleet of 10 PAPs. This triggered ECA’s installation in 1975 in Toulon, where the group’s headquarters are currently located. PAP robots became a reference in underwater mine-sweeping and were its flagship product for 30 years. Sold under a DCAN license, they were a significant success abroad, making ECA, over this period, the company that paid the most royalties to the DCAN. This marked the dramatic rise in strength of ECA in the field of robotics. More than 40 years later, thanks to continuous development, ECA still supplies the French Navy.Today, ECA offers the new generation PAP MK6.
On a different note, there are also a few unusual stories involving PAP submarines:
In fact, later on due to an unexpected event, the submarine was notably chosen as an effigy of a whisky bottle in the Bruichladdich distillery.
A PAP 104 MK5 was also bought by furniture designer Timothy Oulton so that it could be exhibited in one of his custom-built aquariums in his gallery in Amsterdam.
Or even another copy of a PAP is also displayed in a holiday camp.
As an anecdote, during the same period, ECA and Marcel Gianoli implemented a windvane gear system for Éric Tabarly’s Pen Duick using all the company’s skills in navigation and aerodynamics.
This was followed by successive creation of products such as the POPE, MARLIN, and SAR as well as numerous components and various systems for the underwater world.
It also includes the EPAULARD, designed in 1979 for IFREMER, which was the world’s first operational autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) for deep-sea observations. It was able to operate at depths up to 6000 m.
Some of these products notably participated in particularly important missions such as the exploration of the Titanic. This is notably the case of the ROV ROBIN, designed by HYTEC, now part of ECA.
In parallel, the increased production required expanding the offices in the Paris area; the mechanical production plant was set up in Asnières and the sheet-metal plant in Gennevilliers.
At the beginning of 1986, the entire ECA company employed a total number of 335 people of which approximately 135 were specifically assigned to research and design.
At the end of the 1980s, ECA was still carrying out its aeronautic activities (mechanical manufacturing) but over the years the company became more focused on robotics, in particular in the civilian and military underwater domain. The company was sold and taken over by the Groupe Gorgé, which made ECA starting in 1992 the key player that we know today in the world of robotics, with close to 80 client countries worldwide.
Thus, the original aeronautics division is now focusing more on robotics, for example by supplying companies such as Airbus with assembly lines for building airplanes. But also by offering today futuristic robotic solutions such as Humanoid robots that may very well revolutionize the market in the years to come.
Today, this division still represents 30% of the company’s sales.
Thanks to innovation or acquisition, ECA offers solutions in the field of land-based robotics, unmanned aerial vehicles, as well as underwater or surface vehicles that can be used to inspect municipal water supply systems or nuclear facilities… This range of products, of which 1/3 is for the civilian sector, and 2/3 for the military, represents 55% of the company’s sales. In 2000 ECA acquired HYTEC as well as MATRA’s Systems & Information activity.
A few years later, submarines built by ECA HYTEC workshops were already being entrusted with important missions such as deep-sea exploration of the seabed near the Fukushima nuclear facility in order to determine its level of radioactivity.
Furthermore, the company also acquired a simulation division, which represents approximately 15% of its sales figure. It is equipped with a skill set for both civilian and military applications in the naval (sonar, radar, operation centers, wargaming simulators), land-based (driving civilian land vehicles or steering light armored vehicles) or aeronautic (flight simulators) sectors. Simulation activities have evolved in the civilian sector with PC-based solutions and ECA has been highly successful in the aeronautic sector as well as the land-based one. Technologically, these activities are very complementary to those of the ECA. Finally, the company is planning to bring its Simulation Division into the field of military applications where less expensive, PC-based technologies are still only slightly present. After 8 years of efforts, this is the case with the Simulation project for the military market.
These acquisitions, especially those brought about following initial public offerings, resulted in the group’s current structure based around 3 business groups: “Aerospace”, “Robotics and Integrated Systems” and “Simulation”.
The history of the ECA Group is rich with innovation and partnerships with the largest industrial and technological companies in the entire world. By reading these few documents that briefly describe the ECA Group’s history, you can gauge how far we have come since our creation in 1936, highlighting an important business activity and a constant concern for new technologies, of which the members of ECA have always been aware, and will continue its development in the years to come.