It’s a familiar refrain. The UK is great at developing world-leading technology but lags in getting it out of the laboratory and quickly to market. While the UK’s innovators frequently struggle to nurse an idea from seedling to commercial product, technology developers in the US operate in a fertile climate where huge amounts of government funding are available to take their projects out of the lab and into the wider world.
UK engineers may not have a NASA or US department of defence budget to ease the passage of their innovations but they are finding a helpful ally in the high-octane world of F1 motor-racing.
Take the new Qinetiq/Williams F1 technology partnership . Qinetiq gets to test its systems by subjecting them to the extreme demands of the Grand Prix track while Williams gains access to some of the country’s top research and technology facilities.
Qinetiq’s chief executive Sir John Chisolm has long been an advocate of the need for early adoption and has bemoaned the absence of a fertile climate for this approach in the UK. He now gets a chance to redress the situation with Qinetiq set to integrate technology more readily associated with the aerospace and defence industries into an industry that is accustomed to introducing new ideas fast.
The advantages to Qinetiq promise to be twofold. First, the glamour associated with working with F1 industry cannot be underestimated. Not only will its public profile be raised by the association, but the relationship is helping to enthuse its engineers and researchers who are excited to see their technology appearing on racing cars. Qinetiq’s Mark Westwood, who is working with Williams on the application of specially adapted GPS technology, confirmed the link-up has created a buzz among his researchers and engineers.
But beyond this, the F1 track is a seriously rigorous proving ground – and will allow Qinetiq’s engineers to subject their systems to extremes of performance, temperature and man-machine interaction rarely seen outside the aerospace and defence arena.
For Williams, the aims are more straightforward – it hopes that access to Qinetiq’s technology will help it win races. With the team now languishing halfway down the championship table, fans will have to wait until next season to see if it can win its first championship since 1997, but the precedents are promising. Nine years ago, BAE Systems established a similar relationship with the then struggling McLaren racing team. BAE’s engineers helped improve the aerodynamics of the front wing and Mika Hakkinen went on to win the world championship title in 1998, and 1999. The partnership has since expanded to cover a range of areas, and McLaren is now thought to have the fastest car in F1.
Early adoption is more complicated than slapping advanced but untested technology on a racing car and hoping it starts winning – and while Williams hopes to reap immediate benefits from the relationship, the F1 team is in it for the long haul. This is why early adoption is so important. It’s not until technology is taken out of the lab and put on the track, in the air, on the factory floor, or even on the battlefield that its benefits and shortcomings will be fully understood.