Frontline engineering

Hands up if you know that we are currently halfway through National Science and Engineering week. No? Don’t worry, we didn’t until yesterday.

To be fair, the initiative – formerly known as National Science Week – is perhaps aimed more at students than engineering technology magazines, and we therefore assume that its organisers did a far better profile-raising job in the UK’s schools and universities than they did on The Engineer’s news desk.

Whether or not it was poorly publicised, its aim – to engage the general public with the world of science and engineering – was neatly exemplified by an event held yesterday at London’s National Army museum. Showcasing a range of technologies from underwater cats-eyes for marking mines to sensors for locating snipers, the event demonstrated how defence firms are drawing on science and technology to develop cutting-edge equipment for the armed forces.

Opening proceedings, the government’s minister for defence equipment and support, Baroness Ann Taylor, celebrated the dialogue between industry and the armed forces that lay behind the development of many of the systems on show. Other speakers expanded on this theme, and pointed to a growing intimacy in this relationship that’s seeing increasing numbers of defence industry engineers heading for the battlefield in an effort to better understand the needs of their end-users.

This makes very good sense. Whether developing vacuum cleaners for the elderly or portable computers for infantrymen, engineers should make every effort to understand their customers’ requirements.

But perhaps The Engineer could inject a note of caution and suggest that, in the murky world of the defence industry – a little bit of fresh air between business and the armed forces isn’t entirely undesirable.

The army, navy, and air force should be given the breathing space to work with and evaluate technology without an arms dealer looking over their shoulder the whole time.

If the balance of this relationship is allowed to tip too decisively in industry’s favour, the battlefield of the future could become a publicly-funded industrial testing ground, where the commercial pressure to use new technology clouds military decision making and drives up the already astronomical economic cost of the UK’s military activities.

Jon Excell, features editor