As technical director of Dstl, Dr Frances Saunders aims to ensure that the UK’s armed forces have access to the very latest technology. Helen Knight reports.
How times have changed. Back in the 1960s, with around 60,000 engineers and scientists employed on a vast array of projects, the Ministry of Defence had more researchers than it knew what to do with.
Today, in a world that is arguably more unsettled than ever before, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), which is responsible for ensuring that the UK’s armed forces have access to the very best technology, has just 3,500 staff.
These changes mean that Dstl can no longer cover every area of defence research itself. So, as Dr Frances Saunders, the organisation’s technical director explained, Dstl is now working closely with universities and companies in a bid to fill any potential gaps, and has also altered its approach to technology development.
In 2001, around 6,500 researchers were lost when the rest of the former Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (Dera) was privatised to form Qinetiq.
According to Saunders, since this split Dstl has become less of a pure research and development organisation and more of an in-house MoD adviser on the latest technology developments.
‘The kind of research we’re doing is not necessarily about technology per se, it’s about how you use technology,’ she added.
Dstl’s researchers aim to determine how best to harness various technologies to ensure that military commandershave the information at their disposal to make the best operational decisions. They are concentrating on a number of areas of growing importance to the MoD, such as Network Enabled Capability (NEC), where they are investigating advances in sensors, informationtechnology, artificial intelligence and neural networks.
‘Whereas in the past we might have carried out research into something like an infrared detector, we’re now working more at the systems level â€” on how you might use an infrared sensor to gather information and present it to a commander or someone in the field,’ said Saunders.
The manner in which the organisation provides technological and scientific research to the MoD has also changed since the old days of Dera. ‘The emphasis of our work is increasingly on providing rapid solutions to problems, whereas the old research establishment tended to see its job as carrying out R&D work, and to some extent a lot of long-term R&D,’ said Saunders.
The new approach can involve Dstl’s engineers and scientists investigating technology developed elsewhere and adapting it for use by the MoD or other government departments.
‘Sometimes we’re working very rapidly, trying to solve urgent requirements that come up in conflict situations; and in those circumstances we may be trying to turn things round using off-the-shelf technology.’
‘In those cases we’re not developing our own technology, but looking at what’s out there, bringing it together and turning it around in a matter of a month or two to get things out and in the field,’ said Saunders.
The conflict in Iraq is a case in point. The organisation has engineers and scientists based in military compounds in Basra, providing operational research support to help field commanders carry out tasks such as data analysis, and ensuring that they have the right tools available to them. Dstl researchers have also been involved in chemical and biological warfare detection, she added.
‘Because there was the concern right from the start that there might be chemical or biological attacks or weapons of mass destruction, we’ve had people engaged out there on a regular basis, involved in detecting and analysing samples.’
For this work the team needed a device they could take to Iraq to detect chemical and biological warfare agents â€” and it had to be ready quickly, in time to be sent out to the conflict. Within a few months researchers were able to develop a device suitable for the task, based on Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technology.
This involves heating and cooling segments of DNA from a sample using an enzyme to generate billions of copies for analysis. The process is usually laboratory-based, involving the use of a heating block to heat and cool samples in test tubes. But Dstl researchers developed self-heating and cooling test tubes from an electrically conducting polymer. This not only speeded up the process but also made the technology portable.
‘We had some technology that was being demonstrated in the lab, and we were able to rapidly ramp up that development to take biological and chemical detection equipment out to Iraq in time for the conflict. We had a couple of prototypes and were able to get those into the field very quickly,’ said Saunders.
But the technology has a number of other potential applications, including rapid diagnosis of infections such as chlamydia; field testing for animal diseases, including foot and mouth and tuberculosis; at-the-scene forensic DNA analysis; and food hygiene monitoring.
To exploit these uses commercially, last autumn the organisation launched spin-off company Enigma Diagnostics with £5m in funding from a consortium of investors led by Porton Capital.
Dstl had a successful year for such spin-offs in 2004, also launching the joint venture Porton Plasma Innovations (P2i), after developing a liquid-repellent coating technology for devices such as mobile phones, car parts and aircraft components.
‘In 2004 we brought in £10m worth of venture capital with P2i and Enigma,’ said Saunders. ‘We haven’t actually generated a lot of money from the spin-offs yet, but there is the potential, at the right time, to sell some of our shares in the company and realise some financial benefit back into Dstl.’
Launching such ventures is not just about creating more wealth for the organisation, she added. ‘It can be that if you can commercialise a piece of technology, it would have a benefit in a non-defence application. Much of the biological and chemical detection work we do has real benefits for the Department of Health or the Food Standards Agency; we’re looking at detecting bacteria, so if we can develop this technology, it will have immediate benefits to other public services. There is a public sector ethos that says if we’ve got something that could benefit other areas of the public sector, we should exploit it.’
In the longer term, by creating spin-offs, Dstl hopes to reduce the cost of technology that it may want to use in the future. ‘Some of these technologies, while remaining defence based, are going to be very expensive to develop, and there are some examples where it doesn’t matter if we make them more commercially available and then buy them back.’
‘Certainly, for some of the biological and chemical detection equipment, if we can help seed technologies among companies that are developing these for other applications it will reduce the unit cost, so that later on the MoD will be able to buy its equipment from suppliers more cheaply.’
In April the organisation will launch Ploughshare Innovation, a wholly-owned subsidiary responsible for technology transfer activities throughout Dstl, in a similar way to companies such as Oxford’s University’s Isis Innovation. A team of five will scour the organisation for potential spin-off ideas, then establish the fledgling ventures and secure venture capital funding. This will help Dstl set clear boundaries between its core focusof providing the MoD withdefence-related research and analysis, and its spin-off activities, said Saunders.
‘We don’t want to divert people away from our core role of supporting the MoD, so by setting up the new team we will be creating a more clearly defined boundary between thecommercial work and our main business.’