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.” 

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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.”