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Wide open defence

There may be more opportunities in the lucrative defence sector than you thought. Dstl is one route which thrives on external suppliers and technology, as Tim Fryer reports.

Dstl – the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory – is responsible for commissioning and delivering the entirety of MoD's Science and Technology (S&T) programme, a budget which runs to more than £400million per annum. And this is far from a closed shop. Andy Nicholson, head of supplier engagement and head of the Centre for Defence Enterprise at Dstl, commented: "More than 60% of that work is delivered by suppliers other than Dstl and, over the next few years, Dstl will place an even greater percentage externally. As a result, there are growing opportunities for suppliers – both existing and new – to become involved in defence S&T."

The UK Government, principally through the MoD, is Dstl's biggest customer and sets the S&T programme, but there is some collaborative work with other governments. "There are processes within Dstl which assess whether the work to satisfy the requirements is best done within Dstl or placed externally with the wider supply base," explained Nicholson. "The default is emerging that work is placed externally, unless there are reasons such as sensitivity or lack of a supply base which necessitate it being done within Dstl."

A significant portion of the programme is delivered by the defence primes, but there are more than 900 suppliers to Dstl, many of which are SMEs. This is something Nicholson is keen to promote.
"As the ultimate exploitation of much of the S&T is in the form of large systems procured by the MoD's Defence Equipment and Support department, we are increasingly encouraging small and large players to come together to offer solutions. The small players can offer innovative ideas and provide the edge, whereas larger players can generally offer an easier route to market."

Many smaller electronics companies have already played a vital role in the generation of new ideas to address defence problems, such as that of the Improvised Explosive Devices regularly seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nicholson added: "As we are more focused on S&T, we generally work with companies in the design phase and perhaps manufacture of prototypes."

MoD is looking, in particular, at areas with the potential to provide a disruptive capability. In the first instance, it is focussing on five areas to examine: unlocking human capability; self sustaining forces; creating and countering novel and cyber effects; pervasive situational awareness; and reliable space capabilities. "Clearly, all of these potentially could benefit from a wide range of electronics technologies," added Nicholson.

Companies looking to get involved have a number of options, including an annual suppliers day (held in July this year) or through a number of events that Dstl attends, like the Farnborough Air Show, DSEI and DPRTE, where suppliers are encouraged to come forward with their ideas.

Another highly visible engagement is through Dstl's Centre for Defence Enterprise (CDE), also headed by Nicholson. CDE holds Innovation Network events 10 times a year (the next is in Glasgow on 30 September) in order to engage with suppliers and to encourage them to work together. "Such collaborative working has produced clear benefits, both for the suppliers and for Dstl," said Nicholson. "We are actively seeking new suppliers and are very keen to understand the entirety of the defence S&T supply base. We want to ensure that we have access to the best ideas and the preferred way to achieve this is to engage widely."

One example of a company passing successfully through the ranks is Two Tree Photonics (2TP), which has been developing an autonomous low cost and intelligent optical image recognition system. This will detect the presence of reference objects and their location in a scene for applications where power, mass, volume and bandwidth are constrained (for example, where a large computer is not available). Possible applications include the automatic identification of weapons, suspicious vehicles and individuals (using gesture or face recognition).

2TP was funded through CDE and successfully built and demonstrated a proof of concept demonstrator.

However, the perception persists that the defence market is still difficult for new entrants to penetrate, but it is a perception that Dstl is looking to change, according to Nicholson. "CDE was established with the specific purpose of lowering the barriers to entry for new players and our processes have been developed to allow this," he commented. "As we are an S&T organisation, we are generally more interested in ideas for the next generation of technology, rather than what is available currently and that is something any supplier looking to engage with us should bear in mind."

And, said Nicholson, neither should reducing defence budgets be a deterrent to potential suppliers. "There is a large global market for defence. The Government has recognised this and has reacted by forming a number of growth partnerships," he concluded. "One of these is the Defence Growth Partnership, which announced its most recent plans at the recent Farnborough Airshow. It is looking to grow defence exports in many key areas such as Maritime Mission Systems. This represents a large opportunity for the UK to build on the back of the positive reputation of our Armed Forces and look to gain greater exports."

Competition: Maritime Autonomous Systems
Dstl is making £9 million available to support the future of Maritime Autonomous Systems through four initiatives each addressing different areas of maritime autonomy.

Autonomy in Maritime Unmanned Vehicles offers the potential to transform the manner in which many activities are conducted at sea, such as the clearance of mines and persistent wide area surveillance.

Philip Smith, programme manager at Dstl said: "The opportunities presented by Maritime Autonomous Systems are very exciting. However, if we are to exploit these opportunities fully, we need to invest in key areas such as 'supervised autonomy' and 'deployment and recovery' in order to meet future requirements and position the UK as a world leader in next generation Maritime Mission Systems. The funding we are making available through these four initiatives is a significant step towards achieving this."

The specific initiatives are: maritime autonomous systems technology competition; autonomous systems underpinning research competition; adaptive autonomous ocean sampling networks competition; and towards excellence in maritime autonomous systems. All competitions will be open by October 2014.

Competition: Cyber defence
Dstl's Centre for Defence Enterprise is looking for ideas to automate cyber defence responses.

The automating cyber defence responses competition is looking for proof of concept research proposals for tools and techniques that support the planning and carrying out of automated responses to threats to MOD systems.

An automated cyber defence response includes collecting information, identifying the attack, analysing potential courses of action and then responding.

The total funding available for this competition is £2 million, to be split equally over two phases. Phase 1 was launched at a Centre for Defence Enterprise event in September 2014. Phase 2 funding will then be awarded on a per project basis to the most successful outputs of phase 1 funded projects.

Jim Pennycook, head of operations, CDE said: "Automated responses are an essential part of cyber defence processes and this funding will allow us to support a range of innovative proposals in this area."

The automating cyber defence responses competition closes on 23 October 2014.

Author
Tim Fryer

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