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Research excellence

Set up in 1956 Roke Manor Research has over the past 60 years established itself as a world-class electronics engineering consultancy.

Based in Romsey, it provides independent advice to clients across a variety of markets whether that’s defence and national security, high grade manufacturing or the automotive sector.

“Our aim has always been to maximise our clients’ investments in science and technology whether that’s government or industrial partners,” explains Professor Mark West, head of Roke’s Information Security practice.“We look to provide independent advice while at the same time solving technically challenging problems.”

Roke was originally set up and run by Plessey and primarily undertook research looking at military communications systems.

As the site’s reputation grew over the next thirty years so it attracted a growing number of technology contracts. These were, in the main, for defence applications but by the mid-1980s Roke was working on Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) switching for the commercial telecommunications market and GSM cellular telephony.

Roke has changed hands several times with Siemens taking part-ownership in 1990 following its acquisition of Plessey. Today, it is now wholly owned by the Chemring Group, which acquired it from Siemens in 2010. But, despite changes in ownership, Roke has retained a reputation for excellence for world-class innovation and engineering.

It is a recognised software centre of excellence and offers a broad range of capabilities that include array processing, communication algorithms and wireless protocols.

“We also have a significant sensing element to the practice which is supported by our acoustic processing, image processing and detector capabilities,” explains West.

Roke continues to add to its resources and recently extended its acoustic processing capability to include temperature and airflow tomography, damage detection within industrial systems and steerable directional microphones.

Roke also works with 3D vision processing, for making measurements of scenes and determining topologies of objects, as well as processing 2D images. That capability has extended to autonomous platforms providing Roke with a range of offerings across intelligent unmanned systems.

Another significant and growing capability is extracting knowledge from large volumes of complex data, in particular 'big data processing', 'machine learning' and 'packet processing'.

“We provide advice, consultancy and research into all associated areas,” explains West. “From the underlying physics, materials, test, measurement and compliance to designing for large scale manufacture. Another important part of our work is providing rapid prototyping.”

Roke also offers hardware services providing on-site test equipment, manufacturing and design capabilities and it is able to analyse, protect and validate information in secure systems.

“Our role is to help our clients better understand the technical complexities of modern and future systems. We have over 350 engineering consultants on-site who are working to develop new concepts, capabilities and systems. It’s certainly a challenging environment,” says West, “and one that has become more applied and tied in with development, looking to provide clients with complete solutions.

“We’ve been around for a while and have extensive experience in both the civil and military domains,” explains West.

Defence and National Security

When it comes to working with the military Roke has been, and continues to be, involved with a variety of projects.

One high profile project is the enhanced protection for UK Armed Forces through the ICARUS programme, which is a modular active protection system that can detect and react to threats, such as rocket propelled grenades, within less than a 100th of a millisecond. Roke is responsible for the design of the open systems architecture under prime contractor Leonardo.

Another project involves Roke’s STARTLE technology which emulates a mammal conditioned-fear response mechanism for threat detection.

“STARTLE is a kind of augmented intelligence that can cope with very complex situations to help inform and support human decision making,” explains Mohammad Dabbah, a senior consultant at Roke.

“It works by mimicking how an animal’s brain detects threats and then cues sensing and processing. It is able to detect threats rapidly using sensors to enhance the assessment of that threat.

“The ability to manage massive amounts of data is critical,” explains Dabbah. “At Roke we’re well placed to see its impact. It can be quite overwhelming. Driven by the mass deployment of sensors we are increasingly being asked to develop smaller platforms capable of on-board processing in real-time, there’s certainly a big shift away from centralised processing and the demand is now for significant computational power on devices themselves.”

The growing importance of machine learning brings with it a number of issues, as Dabbah explains.

“As machine learning moves beyond defence and into the commercial world we need to better understand human machine interaction. More critical analysis is required, we need to better understand why machines make the decisions they do – can we trust them? We certainly need to make the process more transparent.”

While the best known application of STARTLE has been its deployment with the Royal Navy it is also being used for the detection of sophisticated computer network threats.

The technology has been successfully used in detecting penetration test activity in real-world computer networks, and can use intercept-derived data from local and cloud-based storage.

While defence and national security have been key drivers for Roke, West says that it has always sought to maintain a strong commercial presence.

“While we work across different customer domains, we recognise that defence and national security have always been a critical part of what we do here, but it’s becoming more important that we develop and maintain a vibrant commercial footprint. There are advantages in having a good commercial portfolio, whether in terms of growth or in sharing technological advances across sectors.

“Whatever the sector, however, we are seeing growing interest in the Internet of Things and in connectivity in general. As a consultancy we are being asked, in essence, to track technology trends and monitor how people are engaging with and using technology and what impact that will have on the businesses operate.”

The work that Roke is contractually engaged with is certainly varied. Project Hero is a case in point.

Roke's Autoland system enables UAVs to land safely and accurately on a moving platform

Working with Jaguar Land Rover Roke developed an off-road vehicle for the Austrian Red Cross.

The vehicle comes with an autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) system to aid search and rescue missions.

“Our involvement in this project revolved around our Autoland system,” explains Dean Thomas, a sensors and autonomous expert at Roke. “It was originally funded by the Ministry of Defence and enables UAVs to land safely, accurately and autonomously. Last year a drone was successfully landed on a moving platform as part of a Royal Navy exercise.”

The challenge with Project Hero was landing a drone on a moving vehicle.

“Autoland uses a vision positioning system, so there’s no need for a GPS signal,” Thomas explains. “The cameras on the drone match what they see with a stored version of the target and can then deduce the position of the aircraft in relation to the landing platform – that data is continuously being updated.”

Security

Roke has expanded its UK operations and recently opened a second office in Gloucester, employing 20 new staff, specialising in cyber security.

The growth in the Internet of Things has pushed the issue of security up the agenda.

“As the IoT expands into new and varied markets so cyber security becomes more important and is something in which we have invested heavily,” explains West. “Understanding security and providing and managing security are essential. What does it mean, who controls the data, how do you look to secure devices - all of these issues need to be better understood.”

According to West with security now taking centre stage it is apparent that it can’t simply be retrofitted.

“Security needs to be at the heart of everything we do. From my experience it’s best to break it down into separate areas whether that’s confidentiality, availability, integrity of data etc. For example, can data be changed and if so, who by?”

When it comes to securing devices West makes the point that it needs to be balanced with usability and in the commercial environment consideration needs to be given to power management.

“There’s a trade-off and designers need to understand that and think at the system level. People need to understand the different facets of security; there are different levels of security and the appropriate technical mechanisms need to be understood and used.”

Roke has over time built up a series of relationships with universities around the UK.

“Our engagement with academia is extensive. We have helped set up the Cyber Security Academy in Southampton University, alongside Northrup Grumman and DSTL. It’s a good way to engage with students and is an opportunity for graduates to come and work with us,” West contends.

According to West there is far more commercial awareness at universities today.

“We are involved in a lot more joint bidding for projects so universities are increasingly looking at work that is relevant to industry. As a result we get access to some of the best thinking and research.

“Attracting talent to work in cyber security, for example, is a challenge,” West says.

The cyber security industry is in critical need of more professionals to secure businesses, governments and homes.

“A recent report predicted that the shortfall of skilled cyber workers could reach 1.8 million globally by 2022, so when we were asked by the Cyber Security Challenge UK, we’re one of its sponsors, to host a challenge we jumped at the chance.”

Cyber Security Challenge

Roke ran a Face-to-Face competition in which specialised cyber-units were asked to defend a simulated smart home at Roke’s Romsey site.

Working as a team, individuals were tasked to identify and then secure the vulnerabilities in new, intelligent household gadgets like smart locks, security cameras and even coffee machines.

“Our aim was we wanted them to discover as many vulnerabilities as possible within the system.

“The types of scenarios that we put to the candidates were based on real-world scenarios, but with an added twist to really see who had the necessary skills and potential to join the profession. These competitions,” West believes, “are a great way for candidates to experience what the industry is like and for employers to pick out potential recruits.”

Autonomous vehicles

In April this year Greg Clark, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, gave the go ahead to 5*StarS as part of the national strategy to establish the UK as a global centre for the development, testing and commercialisation of Connected Autonomous Vehicles.

Roke, together with other partners including HORIBA MIRA, Ricardo, Thatcham Research and Axillium Research, are receiving grant funding from the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, to launch the ‘Automotive Cyber Security through Assurance’ project.

“The 5*StarS project is looking at how to address the increased threat from cyber security with the proliferation of connected and autonomous road vehicles,” says Graeme Simpson, Roke’s Lead for Commercial Cyber Protection.

The consortium will research and develop an assurance methodology to assure that connected autonomous vehicles components and systems have been designed and tested to the relevant cyber security standards throughout their whole lifecycle.

“Our aim is to develop a 5 star type consumer rating framework, analogous to existing EuroNCAP type ratings for vehicle safety,” Simpson explains.

“It is so important that we clarify and understand the risks associated with connected autonomous vehicles for the insurance industry, but also in increasing consumer confidence.

“Wherever there is a digital element in the car, it is vulnerable to attack,” explains Simpson. “Both consumers and insurers need to know what potential risk this connectivity has.”

Whether it’s developing a technology concept, prototyping or demonstrating a capability, Roke has established over the past 60 years a strong track record of delivery, enabling clients to make the best use of technology and that looks set to continue.

Author
Neil Tyler

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