Challenge is a grand idea

Perimeter fences patrolled by unsmiling security staff. Windowless buildings and classified projects. Secret trials and multi-million pound deals.

If asked to convey their impressions of the defence industry, many people unacquainted with the sector would probably list one or all of the above. And in many respects they would be absolutely right. By its very nature, development of military technology is usually carried out well away from the spotlight and the first many of us see of it is on news footage from a battle zone.

Against this background, the MoD Grand Challenge, the subject of this issue’s main feature, is a startlingly inclusive event. Later this year 14 teams of engineers and technologists will contest the finals of a competition organised by the UK armed forces to find answers to some of their trickiest operational challenges.

So why the sudden invitation to all-comers from a traditionally secretive defence establishment? Quite simply, the MoD realised it might be missing a trick by not engaging more closely with the engineers and scientists beyond its usual boundaries.

To confirm this, it only had to glance across the Atlantic where the US military research body, DARPA, had run a similar challenge for some years, attracting some of America’s best engineers to what has established itself as a major event on the technology calendar.

Even though it is based on an American prototype, the MoD Grand Challenge marks a welcome return to the great British tradition of throwing open the doors of innovation to the enthusiastic amateur.

In fact, amateur is unfair to the many highly skilled professionals taking part in the finals of the Challenge. Outsider is a better description, but enthusiastic is exactly the right word for how they have set about meeting the exacting demands of the top brass.

There is an endearingly Heath Robinson feel to some of the robotic systems that will take part in the MoD event but you can be certain that if any of them show promise, the military establishment will welcome them with open arms.

If this type of event works for the military, maybe other sectors should consider setting challenges of their own. The NHS, for example, has plenty of need for ingenuity, as last month’s special edition on medical technology proved. A healthcare challenge might unearth some terrific innovations from unexpected sources.

Similarly, perhaps some of the great issues facing the nation in terms of housing, transport and the environment could benefit from the input of those engineers who would not normally turn their talents in those directions.

If the lure of stardom can bring out the nation’s teenagers in their thousands for The X-Factor, perhaps TV should challenge the UK’s engineers to show what they are made of.

Andrew Lee, editor