Vision mixer

John Howard regards his role as MD of TRT(UK), the research arm of Thales, as having the foresight to seek out the technology that will be needed ‘just over the horizon’. Niall Firth reports.

Back in the early 1980s engineers from what was then Racal sat down in a poky Reading office with some suits from BT and hammered out the technical details of the world’s first analogue cellular system.

It’s unlikely that those present realised the significance of the occasion, but this relatively low-key meeting spawned Vodafone, helped kickstart the mobile phone industry, and it’s fair to say now represents a technology milestone that has since shaped our lived in innumerable ways.

In 2000 Racal’s advanced technology laboratory was acquired by Thales, and today forms the UK research arm of the French defence giant — but the spirit of innovation remains as strong as ever. According to managing director John Howard, who has been in charge of the group throughout this period, its role in the birth of the mobile phone is just one example of research taking its developers in an unexpected direction.

As one of the four research groups within Thales that make up Thales Research and Technology, TRT(UK) provides technical solutions and develops new technologies for the company’s larger divisions. It occupies a central berth amid the defence giant’s departments and is essential to Thales’ success, according to Howard.

‘The research and technology element to what Thales does is fundamental,’ he said. ‘It is at the very base of being a hi-tech company, sitting in the middle of the divisions. Our purpose is to be a leading research establishment coming up with solutions to problems.’

TRT(UK) works closely alongside three other research facilities, in France, Holland and Singapore, each of which has a slightly different focus.

For instance, while the French division has a legacy of developing engineering tools, its Singapore counterpart deals with materials research. ‘It all works surprisingly well,’ said Howard. ‘We work together for whole solutions, and manage to avoid treading on one another’s toes.’

Much of the UK group’s recent manpower has been devoted to developing a constellation simulator for Galileo, the European version of GPS. The simulator is the first of its kind and is able to mimic all the signals in space. It will be used by ESA to test its satellites as well as the accuracy of receivers on the ground. According to Howard, the simulator actually represents one of the few occasions where TRT has both developed the technology and also built the entire product from start to finish. ‘It is the gold standard against which all future Galileo receivers will be built, so the accuracy was essential,’ he said.

The completed unit was finally delivered to ESA in April, after changes in the required signal for the simulator meant that it had to be recalibrated. It is designed so that all the system’s signals can be rigorously checked and double-checked before the constellation is finally launched into space, when it would be too late to make serious corrections. Its accuracy allows potential receiver manufacturers to take their receivers to ESA to test the compatibility of their equipment with the Galileo system.

TRT’s latest focus is on virtual collaboration technology that will allow people in separate locations to work together, easily and in real time. With the help of Surrey University’s I-Lab the group has developed a complex suite of applications, networking software and technology all brought together to form a ‘virtual desk’.

Reminiscent of the technology envisaged in Steven Spielberg’s film Minority Report, a user of the virtual desk employs an electrostatic pen to drag documents projected on to the desk wherever they are needed. To enable remote collaboration, this action can be instantly mirrored on any other desk that is linked to the system.

Howard said that as well as civil applications, this technology could also be used for military purposes and for crisis management. It could, for instance, help to co-ordinate a disaster response.

Working with the I-Lab allowed Howard’s engineers to draw on psychological and social aspects, helping them to understand how people respond to complex situations — and now he is keen to foster even closer ties with UK universities. ‘Working with them gives us the chance to look at more futuristic things. It helps the universities in bringing an industrial element into what they do, and it helps us in that it means we have access to the breadth of creative ideas that they can provide,’ he said.

However, much of TRT’s work is targeted towards security, in all its manifestations. For example, as part of the company-wide SHIELD project, the group’s work on port and container security has resulted in recent successful trials of the Smart Container. This cargo container is bristling with hi-tech gadgetry that monitors its position via GPS, as well as its temperature, speed and whether it has been breached in any way.

The group is also heavily involved in some of Thales’ more high-profile contracts, such as the MoD’s Watchkeeper UAV programme for which it is providing the complex communications security and architecture. At the same time Howard’s forward-looking approach means that his team will be looking closely at the technology required for future UAVs. Howard said: ‘I think we’ll see UAVs getting smaller and smaller, to be used for a variety of purposes in cities and in disaster surveillance. To do this there are many interesting security and navigation problems that we need to think about.’

He sees his team’s flexibility as being the key to its continued success, and is very aware of the importance of a bottom-line approach to its technology development. ‘Because of our position, when one division comes along with a problem we are often able to pick the answer straight off the shelf because we’ve already worked on something similar for somebody else,’ he said. ‘Our concern is to make sure that we keep up the innovation and the relevance of what we do. We focus on problem solving and developing the technologies that are needed to support Thales’ applications. We want to be, and have to be, one step ahead at all times.’

The work that the group’s team of 95 engineers does for the larger Thales divisions is constantly evolving and Howard sees an important part of his job as being able to foresee the technologies that will be needed in the future. ‘We have to keep our finger on ideas that are still way over the horizon. Virtual collaboration is an example of this, in much the same way that the emergence of Vodafone from our initial work on the first cellular radio turned out to be.’