25 Jan 2016

Innovation: transforming the face of defence technology

The contemporary defence market is more competitive than ever, and with technology evolving every day businesses are asking themselves what they can do to stay ahead in this fast-paced environment. MOD DCB features writer Domhnall Macinnes spoke to Nicholas Hill, Director of Defence and Security at Plextek, about what it takes for a company to set the pace and succeed in today’s defence technology sector.

Recognised as one of the largest independent electronic design consultancies in Europe, Plextek provides services to organisations in a variety of markets ranging from defence to automotive to medical. The company has clients from both the UK and overseas and is engaged to provide electronic products and system designs. Carrying out tasks in areas such as innovation, technology demonstration, product development and manufacture, Plextek’s service offering extends to various stages of the development process. The company furthermore funds and manufactures projects internally, a number of which have resulted in the creation of significant spin-outs.

With defence budgets having been constrained over recent years, the result has been more companies competing for fewer contract opportunities. For a company to flourish in such a market they must think outside the box and recognise that a more limited budget can actually signal opportunity. Nicholas Hill, Director of Defence and Security at Plextek, notes that with the right resources and ideas a company can take the fact of budgetary constraint as an opening to patent technology that saves on large equipment purchases and manpower, generating interest in the company’s innovative solutions.

Mr Hill said: “Let’s take the science and technology portion of the overall defence budget, for example, which has been shrinking in recent years. Effectively, when money is tight, if you can use technology and new ideas to deliver savings then that’s likely to receive a warm welcome and generate a lot of interest.”

Innovation strategies can be strengthened when a company branches out beyond its initial specialist sector, utilising its established knowledge base and technology already at hand in a wider variety of projects.

Mr Hill explained: “A number of things that we do in the innovation space is around looking at how bits or all of a piece of technology that was previously funded for some consumer or volume application, such as automotive, can be leveraged into defence for the advantage of defence. This may be ninety per cent taking something that’s been designed for say consumer application and ten per cent adapting it to the needs of defence requirements.

“So being in multiple markets means we’ve got much wider visibility. We’re not just restricted to seeing what goes on in the defence space. It’s only because you’re actually designing things that you really know at that sort of low level of detail what you might be able to reuse.”

He continued: “Innovation is absolutely essential in competitive markets. It provides a principal advantage for us and also provides a road into new markets and applications, enabling us to branch out. Having the best idea is the best way to keep ahead and to do that first and foremost you must have a very good understanding of what the customer needs. But also, as customers are not always expert at elucidating what is required in the briefing, knowing the background and being able to work out the core requirements is extremely important.

“It’s a pretty unusual capability in one company to be able to do the complete picture. You have companies that come up with bright ideas and innovations and companies that deliver engineering to the required standards for defence and security applications; being able to do that all under one roof has quite a lot of advantages for us.”

Indeed, the unique projects and technology Plextek is working on today is a testament to their innovation process and advanced capability. One key innovation is the Low-SWaP, 60GHz beam-steerable antenna for non-line of sight communications to small unmanned aerial systems (UAS). Funded by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory’s (Dstl) Autonomous Systems Underpinning Research programme, the purpose of the antenna is to allow high bandwidth data to be downloaded from small UAS in areas such as urban environments where the signal will encounter many obstacles. Rather than use lower frequencies to send data, Plextek is attempting to maintain high bandwidth data download by designing antenna and control steering technology which allows the beam to be effectively reflected off obstacles and find a means of routing the signal back to the receiver, possibly through multiple reflections.

Effectively, when money is tight, if you can use technology and new ideas to deliver savings then that’s likely to receive a warm welcome and generate a lot of interest” Nicholas Hill, Director of Defence and Security, Plextek

Another unique piece of innovative technology has seen Plextek develop adaptive camouflage based on passive electronic display panels, which allows a camouflage display on an aircraft or vehicle to be changed on demand. This solution is robust against a complete power failure and releases no thermal signature, as compared to emissive camouflage schemes – eg ‘cloaking’, where a camera image is projected onto a matrix of LEDs on a vehicle, using a large amount of power and emitting a thermal signature.

Mr Hill argues that maintaining an innovation process adjusted to all departments is vital. He noted: “I tend to look at our skill base in three major categories. The first are the systems people, who are the ones best at working with complex broad problems. The next are the implementers, who have a niche; they are expert in particular areas. Thirdly, the experimenters are the ones who are comfortable with undefined and unfamiliar problems, and while we need all of these skills to come up with good ideas and take them through to finished engineering solutions and provide a complete service, the experimenters are very keen to work with the new ideas generation process.

“We need different sorts of people and each sort needs different processes and support. So we put a lot of effort into enabling an environment where the experimenters – the innovators in the company – can be supported. You can’t try and make the same system work throughout the entire company; you have to tailor an environment where experimenters have the ability to do what they do best.”

For a company such as Plextek, with its resources and extensive capability, the opportunity to adapt technology can be found in its research laboratories and experienced staff. SMEs too, however, can break into the market and demonstrate their innovation. Indeed, some of the most innovative ideas today are coming from smaller firms.

Mr Hill commented: “One of the difficulties for smaller companies is how much effort it takes to actually find out what opportunities are out there in government contracts, for example. A lot of contracting is moving into a sort of framework mechanism which both reduces the amount of administration and increases the visibility of opportunities.

There are also a number of ways in which you can engage in government technology competitions. Centre for Defence Enterprise (CDE) competitions are well known examples; there’s a regular flow of calls for competition coming out with challenges in particular technology areas. There’s also increased growth in the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) portal as a means of putting out competitions in defence. If you start exploring some of the Dstl-led technology programmes, for example in autonomous systems, there are also ways in which you can get access to relatively regular competition challenges all of which have a similar flow.”

As a consequence of the UK Government’s commitment to NATO to spend 2% of GDP on defence each year until the end of the current Parliament, the defence budget will rise by 3.1% in real terms by 2019/20. Some 1.2% of that budget will be allocated to science and technology, and in a bid to encourage innovation in cyber security and support cyber security start-up companies, a £165 million Defence and Cyber Innovation Fund is to be launched.

The current defence market is highly competitive, yet companies with innovative solutions who are willing to take advantage of the opportunities presented could find themselves transforming the future face of defence technology.

For more information, visit: www.plextek.com