The UK has a patchy record when it comes to uniting industry and academia for the development of new products and technologies.
But a unique and ambitious joint research programme between BAESystems and the Engineering and Physical Research Council, worth £30m over the next five years, could pave the way for future collaborations and consign this reputation to the wastebasket of history.
The project – using Cranfield University as the strategic capability partner, plus nine other universities working on different areas in their own specialist fields – is due to come to fruition in 2008, when a new UCAV demonstrator will take off from Cranfield, marking the first tangible result of the collaboration.
Following events will be BAE staff, along with university and research council academics, and probably the government. And some will expect it to crash. Not out of professional jealousy or because of an aversion to research collaborations – but because it will show that the researchers were sufficiently ambitious in the targets it set itself.
‘The vehicle might fail at 45 seconds,’ said Dr. Julia King, chief executive of the Institute of Physics and a former senior Rolls-Royce technologist. ‘But it wouldn’t be a disaster. You’d learn a lot from the failure, and from the fact that it worked for 45 seconds, and it would prove you took enough risks. The way industry approaches research, it’s always a battle to stop risk analysis giving you too short-term a view of things.’
Because the collaboration between BAE and the EPSRC – of which the UCAV programme forms part – is specifically about addressing strategic needs of the aerospace and defence industries, a long-term view is crucial. Unique in its scale, the collaboration was announced this year. Details of the research projects it will fund are only just emerging.
‘BAE Systems approached me with an idea,’ said EPSRC’s programme manager for engineering Dr. Elizabeth Hylton. ‘They said they wanted to ensure that BAE was involved in long-term research. They wanted to fund a five-year programme and know they could give a long-term commitment to the research group without the danger of the plug being pulled.
‘The agreement EPSRC and BAE reached was that we’d work on five themes, one a year for five years, and between us we’d develop consortiums to tackle each theme, each with a hub university and satellites,’ she added.
Each theme will last five years, so the programme will continue for almost a decade. The approach is expected to have benefits for the company, the research council, the UK economy, and for the programme researchers.
‘BAE couldn’t have done it on its own,’ said Hylton. ‘The programme allows us to pull together a large, joined-up project, unlike our normal £200-300k projects. The idea of bringing together all the groups working on different strands and keeping them feeding off each other is something else we wouldn’t have been able to do on our own, either.’
Prof. John Murphy, head of university partnerships at BAE Systems, said that the company has always turned to universities to undertake fundamental research on its behalf. It began to formalise academic partnerships four years ago. ‘We were after a more co-ordinated approach to capitalise on the advantages of being a large company, instead of the separate businesses acting separately. We were also trying to generate a critical mass of research effort behind key challenges, to achieve step changes in capability.’ Typically, research council budgets are too ‘granular’,’ he said, ‘being broken down into small disconnected three-year programmes too subcritical to have an impact on our capabilities’.
The company set about developing an overall structure, and identified a number of strategic ‘domains’ which will form the themes for each of the five years. These are all multidisciplinary and need in-depth specialist capabilities across a broad spectrum. This led to the hub-and-satellite network idea, with a strategic capability partner co-ordinating the work of a range of other primary capability partners with specialist capabilities in a certain area.
‘The idea is to assemble a set of academic groups which are good in depth,’ said Murphy. ‘Then, with the help of the EPSRC we get them working together, with a strategic partner whose role is to pull the research together.’
Thus the first programme, which will produce the UCAV demonstrator, has the theme of aeronautical engineering, with specialist areas such as materials, structures, electromagnetics and controls.
Cranfield is the strategic partner, co-ordinating the work of nine other universities as well as itself being the primary capability partner in a number of specialist areas. The programme will receive £6.2m of funding, two-thirds from BAE and one-third from the research council. Future themes will include systems engineering, withLoughborough as strategic partner, and signal and information systems, with Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt.
Prof. Peter Deasley, Cranfield’s strategic partnership’s director, said: ‘We’ve had a relationship with BAE Systems for years, but it was always frustrating that it was difficult to get hold of the company. We’d do a project with a unit here and a unit there, but they wouldn’t talk to each other. We’d have hundreds of contact names, but they would always be changing. When BAE said they were going to do things differently and have a relationship with a select number of universities, we were very happy.’
The UCAV programme will involve 23 post-doctoral research assistants of varying levels of experience. There will also be five PhD projects defined from the start, with around another 30 expected to be added to the programme as it progresses. It is proposed that many of these studentships should be attached to innovative companies in the supply chain, which would not normally be able to fund research on their own account, to help them develop ideas. There may also be a number of secondments from BAE Systems to the programme as it progresses.
There is a widespread feeling that the programme will be a model for other industries and companies. ‘It’s a template for the future, both for industry and for EPSRC,’ Deasley predicts.
Murphy acknowledges that there are other models – Rolls-Royce’s network of University Technology Centres, for example – but adds: ‘I think there is opportunity for other industries to see what we’ve done, and we would be quite open to some other industries getting involved with us.’ The whole exercise is likely to be presented as a case study to the Lambert review, which is looking into UK innovation performance for the Treasury.
The implications for the UK economy are two-fold. The significance of the programme is not so much that the research would not otherwise have happened: ‘It probably would have been done, but not as effectively or cost-effectively,’ said Deasley.King said: ‘A lot of the more fundamental projects would have been funded by EPSRC but might never have been taken any further by industry – it’s a bit hit and miss.Linking the innovation chain is crucial to the UK.’
Deasley said: ‘I don’t think the universities or companies could produce graduates with the experience they’ll be gaining. There will be many highly-qualified PhDs, who’ve been exposed to large company project management and strategic decision-making.
‘In the long-term for the economy they might be more valuable than the UCAV.’
Sidebar: The aims and partners
The programme’s aims are two-fold.
To develop a maintenance-free UCAV without conventional control surfaces, such as bending wings, micro electromechanical machines or electromagnetic thrust mechanisms for steering, and with no cost or performance penalties (compared with conventional aircraft).
It also aims to make significant research impact through effective academic/industry management and exploitation of large-scale integrated academic industry research.
Nine primary capability partner universities, co-ordinated by strategic capability partner Cranfield, have responsibility in different specialist fields.
Cranfield also has its own primary capability areas – flight mechanics, stability and control, flying qualities and composites manufacturing.
The primary partners are:
Computational fluid dynamics, control systems and advanced algorithms
Laser processing in manufacturing
Wind tunnel techniques and analysis
Electromagnetic features and multi-scale models
Optimisation of design
Computational electromagnetics methods
Electromagnetic compatibility analysis tools, validation and test.