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.

DASA: Driving innovation in defence and security

The Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) exists to help government access innovative ideas, equipment and services more quickly for UK security and military users in order to help maintain security and military advantage over our adversaries, to protect people and ultimately to save lives.  

DASA went live in December 2016, evolving from the Centre for Defence Enterprise (CDE), and was given the remit to help government defence and security departments collaborate with industry, academia and allies to rapidly develop innovative solutions to the most pressing national defence and security challenges. 

Dr Lucy Mason, Head of DASA, was appointed in March 2017, having previously worked at the Home Office, leading the science and technology (S&T) and private sector engagement work strands as part of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy. 

Approaching her second anniversary of her appointment, Dr Mason is clear on the role of DASA. She explains: “The Defence and Security Accelerator aims to help us keep up and get ahead of the challenges we are facing. We need to spot opportunities and make best use of them as quickly as possible, drawing on the UK’s world-class academic and research sectors and on the expertise of the private sector.” 

DASA Driving innovation in defence and security 3

Dr Mason believes that the ever-evolving threats the UK faces means that governments must face up to new challenges and find ways to respond to them quickly. 

“Governments must get used to operating in a very fast-paced, uncertain environment, where threats may emerge from unexpected places and where a state often does not have the levers or remit needed to act. This means becoming better at spotting possible security threats and opportunities and being more agile in responding quickly to them, while bearing in mind the need for proper consideration, safeguards and the appropriate legal and ethical frameworks,” says Dr Mason. 

However, she is aware of the vital role that the private sector has to play in this process: “We need the private sector – including companies not traditionally associated with defence and security – and academics to better understand the kind of trends and problems we are facing.” 

DASA recently published its 2018 annual report outlining the progress the organisation has made in driving innovative solutions to the UK’s most pressing defence and security challenges. The report highlighted the organisation’s successes in building a ‘thriving innovation ecosystem’ by developing partnerships with defence and security innovation groups. 

Last May DASA launched an Open Call for Innovation, receiving 200 proposals; it has funded 28 projects in all since April 2017, totalling £2.36 million. 

Through the creation of the Open Call for Innovation, the organisation has provided an avenue for anyone with a good idea to submit it, at any time. The proposals are assessed by technical experts from across defence and security, against a set of predefined criteria which may lead to a decision to fund. 

In January 2018, DASA launched a new ‘twin track’ approach. The first track is open to potential innovations at an early stage of development while the second track seeks rapid-impact innovations, which must have an impact within three years. 

Great strides were also made with the launch of the first Defence Innovation Challenge, ‘Revolutionise the human information relationship for Defence’, funding 33 proposals worth £3.05 million in phase 1 and proposals worth £862,000 in phase 2. 

The second Defence Innovation Challenge, ‘Defence People’, followed in March 2018, aiming to engage a range of SMEs and MOD stakeholders and gain insight into the marketplace. 

DASA has also launched a series of competitions such as Finding Hidden Explosives in Electrical Items; Regenerative Medicine at the Front Line; Autonomous Last Mile Resupply; and Autonomous Hazardous Scene Assessment – all seeking to find innovative solutions. 

An example of DASA’s success can be seen in the development of ‘acoustic yarn’. Funded by Dstl through the Open Call for Innovation, Nottingham Trent University developed acoustic yarn in response to the specific risks to hearing that members of the military are often exposed to. This work created a textile noise sensor, or dosemeter, for military use. 

Overexposure to noise is known to cause permanent hearing damage; as a result, employers are required to implement suitable health monitoring measures when workers will be exposed to loud noises. A noise dosemeter is the most reliable way to determine a worker’s noise exposure, but commercially available solutions are not suitable for military use. An innovative helmet cover made of acoustic yarn means that the sensor does not interfere with kit or with the operational effectiveness of troops. 

Another noteworthy accomplishment came with the development of the combat tourniquet by researchers at the University of Strathclyde.  

Created in response to the experiences of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, where improvised explosive devices caused traumatic injury, this three-stage approach is a brand-new technique that brings together kit that can be used in the field with highly specialised solutions once the patient has been evacuated to a hospital. The combat tourniquet applies pressure to the limb at different points, reducing damage to specific areas.  

A cooling ‘sock’ is then wrapped around the tissue to preserve it from further damage until the casualty can be evacuated to a care facility. At the hospital, the limb is then placed inside a protective ‘box’ which can sustain the area while doctors attempt repairs. The box contains specially decontaminated air to reduce infection, and continually supplies the affected area with blood. 

Following successful trials, the system is set to be available commercially, and could one day form part of the medical kit in every frontline unit. 

DASA is looking to continue its evolution with a number of new initiatives for 2019. These include the introduction of a cloud-based service to manage opportunities and calls for innovation, and the process of managing, tracking and collaborating on them. 

Efforts will continue not only to make DASA more accessible but also to expand its reach by working closely with the best organisations across the world, including those from Australia, Canada and the United States. 

The organisation also plans to work even more closely with the likes of Innovate UK, UK Research and Innovation and The Royal Society and broker new partnerships with organisations and trade bodies across the public and private sectors to create the best possible ecosystem for innovation. 

Dr Mason explains: “I’m proud of what we’ve achieved, together, and thank everyone who’s helped us and supported us during our first year. As we move forwards, we’ll continue to try new ideas, pilot new ways of doing things and learn as we go. 

“We’ll keep improving and we’ll keep working hard. And I, for one, can’t wait to see what the future holds.”