Changing times are difficult for everyone to adjust to, but for the defence and security sectors – charged with protecting the safety of the nation – some aspects of change are more difficult than others. The participants in The Engineer’s recent roundtable on innovation in the defence sector explained that the accelerating pace of technology development is a cause for much potential anxiety.
- Alex Caccia CEO, Animal Dynamics
- Prof David Delpy Chair, Defence Scientific Advisory Council
- Jon Excell Editor, The Engineer
- Heather Goldstraw Director of Technology Delivery, DE&S, Ministry of Defence
- Chris Guyott Engineering Director, Frazer-Nash Consultancy
- Rob Solly Acting Head of the Defence and Security Accelerator
- Nick Wills Business Development Director, Motorsport Industry Association
- Andy Wright Director of Strategic Technology, BAE Systems
In past decades, the defence sector has enjoyed a position of primacy in innovation. It was at the forefront of technology development, and its inventions were often adapted to cascade down to the civilian sector. But this is no longer the case.
Animal Dynamics CEO Alex Caccia noted that his company’s development of small drones that mimic the flight capabilities of insects depends to a large extent on the availability of technologies – in particular, the sensors, used in mobile phones – that until recently were prohibitively expensive. This, he said, is both an opportunity for his company and a threat to others. “For example, there’s a chip issued by Texas Instruments called a sensor tag that contains every kind of sensor you can lay your hands on, and it costs about $17. Ten years ago it would be in the hundreds of thousands. That opens up a set of possibilities to develop more sinister applications for very small budgets. We need to develop the capability to offset that.”
Prof David Delpy summarised one aspect of the changing times by stating that while once the defence sector could effectively control access to technology this is no longer the case. “To be honest you can’t control anything now,” he said. “Anyone can build anything and if you can’t build it yourself you’ll find someone on the internet who will build it for you.”
The MoD’s Heather Goldstraw said that there still remains a culture within the defence sector that it has to be a leader in technology and not a follower. But this can be counter-productive, she added, because it means the sector risks missing out on possibly useful technologies developed for other industries. “We are now identifying where people have similar problems: oil and gas has similar challenges to some parts of defence, so has transport and telecommunications, medical and education, simulation, training and modelling.” She went on to highlight the other challenges facing the sector. “We have to be more systemic. Because, now, everything is a challenge,” she said. “Money is a challenge, emerging threats are a challenge, being more sustainable is a challenge, looking after the environment and contributing to the economy is a challenge. We need to innovate on all of those fronts.”
The MoD is in the unique position as the main buyer for most of the defence technology developed in (or for) the UK. Goldstraw observed that much of the time this is in response to threats and opportunities, as it always has been. “There are both changing threats and proliferation of threats,” she said. “The secretary of state for defence is clear that we have resurgent Russia but at the same time we have Daesh – so-called Islamic State – and unpredictable insurgent-type threats. We have to be able to cope with both.”
Similarities with transport
As an example of how defence needs to draw on other sectors, Goldstraw pointed out that one of the often-ignored aspects of the sector is that it operates very large fleets of vehicles, and therefore has much in common with the transport sector (not a parallel that would tend to occur to many people, she ventured). “We are looking at a number of things that are already well established in the transport sector to make vehicles more fuel-efficient, for example,” she said.
Goldstraw also pointed out an aspect of innovation that will be familiar to many readers of The Engineer: it’s not just about technology. “To me innovation is about the exploitation of ideas; and they can be process or service ideas. We need to become more agile, much more able to respond to threats and opportunities; whether it’s through tactics and training, or different intelligence and information, so we change what we do and how and where we actually deploy, or if it’s being able to very rapidly roll out a counter to a particular threat.”
In part, she said, this means being able to look at other sectors and realise that they face similar problems. “We need to be able to embrace new suppliers, new technologies, through our commercial models, through the way we acquire, through building our supply chains, through building links with other sectors, and not just the traditional defence trade associations.”
Chris Guyott, engineering director of Frazer-Nash Consultancy, said that other sectors of industry tend to find it easier to innovate because they don’t typically have to deal with the shear breadth of challenges that the defence sector faces. “Other sectors can often organise themselves a little bit more readily to get on and do it. They’re trying to solve detailed problems that are relevant to them. That’s a little bit easier because you’re solving a focused problem.”
Despite this, Guyott said he has come across a number of examples of other sectors borrowing innovative approaches from the defence industry. One major influence, he said, has been on the rail sector, which has based much of its approach to safety management and how to understand risks and hazards on lessons learned from defence.
Learning from motorsport
Nevertheless, technology now tends to flow in the opposite direction. And of all the sectors that the world of defence can learn from, motorsport – a harsh and demanding industry with short timescales and hard deadlines – is perhaps one of the most interesting examples.
“Everybody in our environment is constantly in a state of trying to catch up and get ahead,” said Nick Wills, who leads the Motorsport Industry Association’s efforts to build relationships in defence. “This drives a behaviour, a performance and a mind state among the engineers that work there that is different compared to other sectors. How you can bring that to bear on problems outside of just being at the front of the grid is something that a number of the top-end motorsport engineering companies are now bringing to the market.”
Some of the time, this common ground can be a positive advantage for the sector. Andy Wright of BAE Systems observed that one problem is that it is difficult to describe problems faced by the sector, because in doing so weaknesses in the UK’s ability to respond to certain situations is revealed. “We worked on programmes called Aladdin and Orchid that were about getting information around a battlespace, but we asked them to work on disaster recovery as an analogy to that,” he explained.
Wright said that one of the advantages of the defence sector is that it has an abundance of hard problems, and because these tend to stretch the capabilities of technology they are inherently a strong spur to technology development.
Alex Caccia went even further: “What’s been very interesting for me… is being presented with a very specific, very hard problem that is not in the civil domain. There isn’t a requirement for, in our instance, a gust-tolerant, tiny drone. The fact that the problem is so extreme has forced us to think about problems we would never have thought about before.”
Animal Dynamics’ work on its Skeeter drone, which is based on a dragonfly, has led to the development of technologies that would otherwise have not been necessary, he added. “To make Skeeter work we had to design a new kind of motor because we had to get the power-to-weight ratio really high and the coulomb losses down really low. We now find all sorts of applications for that because the requirement is so extreme; and it wouldn’t be extreme were it not a military requirement.”
UAVs have already led to important process innovations in defence, Goldstraw said. “The current nano-UAV capability that Skeeter is looking to build on came out of experimentation in urban combat, where you have to face problems such as seeing around corners and over walls. How you engage in an urban environment is very different from the environment our equipment was developed for.
“Black Hornet was a nano-UAV the team spotted on YouTube in 2009, we invited the developers to engage with us and, after further development, it was trialled by the army in 2011, which gave it the evidence to raise an urgent operational requirement – UOR. It was in the field in Afghanistan within 12 months following a competition and some minor development. The big innovation with Black Hornet was it put that surveillance and intelligence in the hands of the unit on the ground rather than relying on larger surveillance assets sent from further away or having to send men forward to check areas. It changed the traditional methods of disseminating that information and who was making the decisions on intelligence gathering.”
The DSTL’s Defence and Security Accelerator is facing similar issues, Rob Solly said, citing an example in the overlap between defence and medical technologies. “We’ve been working with the University of Strathclyde to develop a very simple device so that when a serviceman is injured and losing a lot of blood, that blood can be salvaged and returned back to their body rather than having to rely on large amounts of donated blood. We’ve helped it find a commercial partner and that will lead to off-the-shelf technology. Who’s going to buy it? You can see that front-line ambulance staff could benefit enormously from this.”
The reluctance of some companies to work with the defence sector is an issue, Goldstraw acknowledged. The sector still has special requirements that some companies find difficult to meet.
“Sometimes defence does have to worry very much more than other sectors when making its procurement that things are safe, reliable, compatible and secure,” Goldstraw said. “We know that isn’t cheap or easy and for an SME to meet defence standards, volumes and quality may be a real challenge for them, but we are constantly looking at ways to make it easier for these companies to do business with us by challenging our standards and adopting new contract models where we can.
“The biggest challenge we have is not unique to defence at all; it’s understanding supply chain and how acquisition can be continually improved to reflect the market,” said Goldstraw. “When we use a prime contract model, we as an organisation do not directly buy subsystems, components or materials, we buy products or systems that give us military capability. So potential new suppliers might have a fantastic idea, but it might need to be targeted at someone lower down in the supply chain, not directly at the MoD. The oil and gas and transport sectors have similar issues as procurers of large and complex systems.”
Alex Caccia agreed, highlighting another difficulty. “What’s missing is an understanding of at what point a start-up has to engage with regulators and standards, and it’s a lot earlier than you think,” he said. “The industry’s very stratified: it appears to be very big companies at one end and very small ones at the other. The venture capital industry doesn’t back technology risk or business in the phase of technology, so you need to get beyond just having the MoD as a customer. Building the company is a delicate process because it requires business and technology knowledge.”
One effect of this, he explained, is that it can be very difficult for companies to grow. “When most of your income is from research grants, they tend to be squeezed so much that there’s no money left over to grow the company,” he said. But this is often not the case when dealing with government. “A normal commercial relationship is a zero-sum game, and it’s not when you’re dealing with government. There’s an interest in our business succeeding, albeit as long as our success aids our partners’ success.”
Andy Wright quoted another example. “We’ve invested in a company called Intelligent Textiles. It’s a small business that’s invented a novel textile that allows you to transmit data through a textile rather than with wires. The need for that is to allow a soldier to plug in all their devices without wires trailing everywhere, but the impact is potentially much broader. It had a really good idea but the cost point was too high, it couldn’t sell it; so we worked with the company to drive down the cost.” The business has since expanded and is now moving into new premises in Lancashire.
The Defence and Security Accelerator
The Defence and Security Accelerator brings together staff from the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and Defence Equipment and Support (DES). It aims to fund proof-of-concept research in the defence and security sector, taking its funded research towards implementation and market exploitation, and to open up the daunting and sometimes hard-to-access sector to a wide range of organisations, with particular emphasis on SMEs.
Launched in December 2016, the Accelerator operates a programme called Enduring Challenge, with £6m annual funding, which aims to provide a route into the sector for organisations that have had no contact with the sector before. In part, according to the MoD, this is a response to the impossibility of knowing all developments that might be relevant, in terms of technology, business processes and training. Typically, the programme provides funding of £50,000-£90,000 for work of up to nine months’ duration. It operates in nine areas: protection, situational awareness, power, communications, data, lethality, mobility, human performance, and lower cost of ownership. It operates in monthly assessment cycles, with feedback given to applicants shortly after the closing date of each cycle.
Organisations wishing to apply to the accelerator should click here.