Collaboration, innovation and opportunity up for debate at DPRTE 2019

DPRTE may have drawn to a close but the event’s core themes of collaboration, innovation and opportunity remain some of the biggest talking points for 2019. In fact, away from the bustle of the Keynote Arena, many of the event’s most significant conversations were taking place in the numerous Knowledge Transfer Zones.

First up at the Technology & Innovation Zone, Andrew Cunningham – Executive Director for Innovation at the UK Defence Solutions Centre (UKDSC) – was on hand to explain the potential of cross-sector innovation from a defence perspective.

Having explored the UK defence innovation and S&T (science and technology) ecosystem, UKDSC discovered an opportunity to do things a little differently. “The principal focus was the opportunity to drive greater collaboration between government and industry,” said Andrew. “In particular, to create the business case for industry to co-invest in the innovation and S&T space.”

But if industry is to invest in science and technology there inevitably needs to be a return on investment. It’s a business-led perspective which runs contrary to the MOD’s own approach, where investments are made comparatively early and not necessarily with the same push to fully exploit the end product. For UKDSC it’s an untapped opportunity, and the centre is now attempting to marry the two complementary methods in an effort to foster innovation UK-wide.

BiP DPRTE 2019

The problem for industry, however, is that return on investment may seem an uneasy prospect if the MOD is the sole customer. For most investors, the risks associated with having a single (albeit large) client are considerable – more so when you consider the challenging nature of the science and technology space.

Instead, Andrew recommends that a business case be made to establish whether the customer base can be broadened beyond the MOD and possibly into the commercial realm. “If you can demonstrate that your innovation has applications cross-sectorally or internationally then you can build a business case for industry investment because you’re no longer dealing with a single customer.”

Through its Cross-Sector Innovation Initiative, UKDSC is developing two such projects, each relating to a specific sub-sector – autonomous subsea systems and high-altitude intelligence.

According to Andrew, the key here lies in “identifying the areas where multiple sectors are trying to achieve the same or very similar outcomes”. The commercial and defence objectives for autonomous subsea systems are very similar, for instance – namely longer range and greater endurance. We all want to be able to spend more time underwater, albeit for very different reasons.

While still in its early stages, the cross-sector model shows real promise for securing greater investment in innovation. Coincidently, these were themes Jim Pennycook, Innovation Partner at the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA), also touched upon during his DPRTE seminar, entitled ‘Engaging with Innovation’.

For the uninitiated, DASA offers ‘serious challenges and serious funding’ to SMEs in order to attract the very best innovations into the UK defence and security sector. During his talk, Jim championed the concept of ‘exploitable innovation’ and made clear DASA’s commitment to investing in new technologies that deliver unique capabilities and provide the UK with a defence and security advantage.

To illustrate his point, he highlighted the Black Hornet Nano as a prime example of why the MOD should focus its attention on so-called ‘open innovation’. None of the components that make up the micro UAV were developed by the defence sector. Instead, much of the technology came from the mobile phone industry, with both the Black Hornet’s camera and battery stemming from investment in other fields.

“In realising this, MOD has established within DASA a route to attracting open innovation,” said Jim, “specifically from SMEs but also from areas of other markets to pull that innovation into defence.”

Through DASA, SMEs are able to have their innovations 100% funded and at rapid pace, typically within three weeks. DASA is also able to offer successful applicants assistance on how best to exploit their ideas – taking them from the initial concept to a place where exploitation is fully understood and commercialisation can begin. Essentially, Jim’s message was a call to action: if you have an innovation, DASA wants to hear from you.

Supply chain engagement was another obvious talking point at DPRTE 2019. Amid the many networking opportunities and the buzz of the Defence Procurement Pavilion, David Wharton – Head of Account Management at the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) – took to the Supply Chain & Partnering Zone to discuss the service’s ongoing collaboration with the MOD’s Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO).

With a potential £13 billion worth of spend slated to be pushed out through CCS frameworks over the next decade, it quickly became clear that DIO would need a dedicated account manager. It’s why the two organisations have entered into such close collaboration, embedding within each other’s teams to ensure these construction and facilities management frameworks are overseen effectively.

Here, communication is obviously essential. “At CCS we consider ourselves the leading procurer of FM solutions across central government,” said David, “and we’re transferring that commercial capability to DIO.”

Crucially, CCS also understands the importance of the UK supply chain. Despite being one of the largest commercial organisations in Europe, the service has pledged to procure 33% by value of all its business with SMEs, which complements DIO’s own approach to supply chain engagement. David’s was one of a handful of talks concerning SME opportunity. Only an hour earlier, Martin Lee – Programme Procurement Manager at Airbus Defence and Space – outlined similar opportunities for the country’s burgeoning space sector.

In light of last year’s ‘Prosperity from Space Strategy’, Airbus is keen to grow the UK space sector and engage with the SME community. After all, “that’s where a lot of the innovation will come from,” said Martin. “We want to build that community fivefold from what it is today.” In fact, it’s thought that the number of high-tech space sector jobs will rise by an estimated 30,000 by 2030.

“For me, one of the key areas is how do we bring in non-traditional space sector suppliers – those with new ideas and differing business models,” continued Martin. “Because if we’re going to grow the space sector we’re also going to have to be competitive and we have to look at the competitiveness of the UK globally.”

Here, large-scale projects – such as the Government’s potential alternative to the EU’s Galileo global navigation satellite system (GNSS) – will have a pivotal role to play in developing the capabilities of the sector. According to Martin, if the UK GNSS was to go ahead it would be a “great opportunity for UK Plc to really take part in the space sector”, bringing with it massive opportunities for SMEs all over the country.

Finally, returning to the Technology & Innovation Zone, Stuart Young – Head of the Centre for Defence Acquisition at Cranfield University – closed out the event with a fascinating talk on artificial intelligence, its impact on defence procurement and the challenges associated with AI adoption.

In the defence sector, artificial intelligence applies to anything from collaborative robotics and autonomous vehicles to computer vision and image recognition technology. But what the sector has yet to see is that long-term paradigm shift where artificial intelligence is integrated as a matter of course. One of the biggest reasons behind this is the industry’s apparent lack of appropriate skills. “If we don’t understand AI,” said Stuart, “and we haven’t got people with the right skills to identify its applications, we’re not going to be using it effectively.”

In fact, the effective use of AI will require nothing less than a cultural sea change. According to Stuart, the defence sector works in ‘functional stovepipes’, but this siloed approach negates some of the most significant benefits of AI and big data – namely the ability of systems to ‘talk’ to each other.

Along with best practice, infrastructure will also have to adapt. Warehouses may have to be reconfigured to accommodate different docking arrangements and entrance designs in support of autonomous vehicles, for instance. And inevitably, as a result of AI, “some jobs will be lost, some will be gained and many more will have to change”.

But how long will it be before that long-term paradigm shift actually arrives? “I personally think it’s quite a long way off,” answered Stuart. “One reason being the level of investment required; the other being the human trust and ethical issues coming to the fore at the moment. There’s a lot of confidence and trust to be built up so I think a 15-20-year timescale is probably about right.”

It may seem a long way off then, but the UK defence sector must move quickly if it is to remain at the forefront of the artificial intelligence space. All of which is why DPRTE is so important. No event in the defence calendar brings buyers and suppliers together and asks them to engage in the sort of meaningful conversations described here. For the UK defence supply chain, 2019 is a time of immense opportunity. Perhaps we’ll see what progress has been made at DPRTE 2020.