Eye on the future

Although Roke Manor Research is renowned for contract R&D, managing director Paul Stein says the company is doing a lot less ‘R’ and far more ‘D’ these days. Niall Firth reports.

Armchair cricket fans thrilled by this summer’s Ashes series will also have enjoyed the benefits of a technology that has revolutionised televised sport.

Hawkeye, the advanced image-processing technology that predicts the flight of a cricket ball to within millimetres, was born in the leafy Hampshire idyll that houses one of the UK’s most prolific R&D centres.

A wholly owned subsidiary of Siemens since 1991, Roke Manor Research has existed in one form or another since the 1950s. It was founded by Plessey and developed Ptarmigan, the Army’s communications system that is still in use today.

Managing director since 1996, Paul Stein has seen a real change in focus for Roke Manor since those heady times.

While the Plessey days were what he describes as the company’s zenith, the company still has an annual turnover of £35m and employs 330 engineering staff.

Now he views Roke as a contract design services company, and one that is more bottom-line focused than ever before.

‘For an R&D company we’re doing a lot less R and far more D these days,’ he said. ‘Nowadays a customer comes to us and says “design me a system that does such and such” and we go away and do it. It’s a market-led approach.’

Roke’s three main technology areas are communications, information systems and electronic sensors. Of these, communications is by far its greatest focus. Eighty per cent of the company’s work is communications related, with almost half the centre’s resources concentrated on developing 3G technology for mobile phones.

When you are owned by one of the world’s biggest communications companies, that’s probably no real surprise. Part of the reason for Roke’s more prosaic approach to technology development stems from its role as a Siemens subsidiary. And Stein is actively trying to become more involved in working with, and for, its parent group.

Although Roke’s research for Siemens already amounts to 45 per cent of the UK centre’s overall activities, Stein’s new strategy aims to strengthen the link even further by working more closely with Siemens’ medical imaging, automotive and transportation divisions.

Naturally, Roke Manor is under pressure to deliver financially, which in some circumstances could hinder innovation. But Stein feels that Siemens has the balance about right.

‘Siemens is quite a benign shareholder. It combines business-mindedness with faith in innovation and technology, which is a healthy formula,’ he claimed.

One area of innovation into which Roke has moved is the development of niche products. It spots a gap in the market, and then develops a technology that can be sold as a complete ‘shrinkwrapped’ solution.

One such successful package is Roke’s intelligent CCTV system, Video Motion Anomaly Detection (VMAD). This uses Roke’s image processing techniques to monitor a moving scene and detect anomalies within it. It employs self-learning software which ‘teaches’ itself whether movement detected by the camera is normal or not, and can alert an operator if it has noticed something within its field of vision that it considers out of the ordinary.

Roke’s image processing has also led to the development of the Automatic Number Plate Recognition systems that now monitor petrol forecourts for non-payers.

Another of the company’s niche products to reach the market recently is the Miniature Radar Altimeter, a unit no bigger than a bag of sugar that was designed specifically for the UAV market to replace traditional radar altimeters, which are too big and heavy.

But these unique technologies are, according to Stein, an exception rather than a rule. His own background may be technical — he graduated from King’s College, London, in electrical and electronic engineering — but he has had to temper his own instincts for research with a sound business sense.

‘On a personal level, I am an engineer by inclination and by training. We don’t have a chief technical officer here — I fulfil both roles. I just have to ensure that we are in the right technology areas,’ he said.

Finding those areas has meant a considerable amount of re-positioning for Stein and his team. Before the dotcom bubble burst, Roke’s focus was very much on general commercial technology. After September 11, Stein re-balanced the company towards a more even split between commercial and defence markets. He believes that straddling these two has huge advantages.

‘History has shown that keeping a good balance between the two means that we will be here for the long term, because the defence and commercial markets work in anti-phase. When investor confidence decreases, it is often due to conflict or war and so defence expenditure increases and vice versa.’

Roke Manor works closely with all the UK’s major defence contractors, which account for almost half its overall workload. As Siemens has no interest in the defence market, Roke Manor has a free rein to operate as an independent company in this area.

According to Stein, Roke’s unique balancing act between the civil and military sectors gives it a competitive edge when it comes to offering services to the defence industry.

‘One of our trump cards is that we are at the leading edge of commercial and defence technology. Because bespoke military systems can cost 100 times more than their commercial equivalent, if we can take technology such as chips and sub-systems and find a way of using them for military applications, we can offer better value for money.

‘As long as we can find a way of mitigating the disadvantages of using commercial systems, which are usually to do with robustness, we have a real competitive advantage,’ he added.

As for the future, Stein is quite frank about where Roke Manor Research should be heading. Although its history lies in contract R&D, the company is already having to offer more than just the bare essentials to compete. ‘We are having to move up the food chain a bit, offering whole solutions rather than just the technology that makes it work.’

One of these whole solutions concerns network security, which Stein sees as a growth area for the industry over the next few years.

But Roke Manor’s prime interest is in pushing back the boundaries of 3G mobile technology all the way through to 4G. Stein believes that 3G will mature greatly over the next few years, particularly when integrated with GNSS location-based technology that fixes your physical position.

Roke’s shift away from pure research is evident in its figures. Of its private venture investment fund, five per cent is reinvested in technology. Fifty per cent of this is directed towards niche products and 30 per cent goes towards developing technology where there is a known customer requirement. Only 20 per cent is kept back for blue-sky high-risk ideas. ‘Four to five years ago 100 per cent of the money was for blue-sky research,’ said Stein.

Yet out of that 20 per cent came Hawkeye, Roke Manor’s most famous product. It was then spun out as HawkEye Innovations and is now owned by a TV production company that is looking to use it to fully automate line calls in tennis.

‘We still allow maverick inventors to come up with their own ideas. But we are market led rather than pushing technology. The technology we develop is the stuff that our customers have asked us for, rather than us trying to trail-blaze and take risks. Those days have come to an end.’

As Roke Manor Research competes with areas of the world with low labour rates such as India or eastern Europe, the company has had to make practical changes to the way it operates in order to survive.

Some things, however, never change. ’We are still a place where our customers know they can come to get difficult problems solved. And we are proud of that,’ said Stein.