How can technology organisations come together to drive transformation in Uncrewed Air Systems? Jonny Gilchrist, BAE Systems Digital Intelligence, was a panellist on a recent techUK forum which examined the opportunities, challenges and emerging technologies which are shaping this fast-moving sector and reflects on his experiences.
After what has been an uncertain couple of years it is great that in-person events are now back as a regular fixture in my calendar. One recent calendar highlight for me was a techUK ‘UAS Future Capabilities Forum’ focused on emerging technologies, opportunities and challenges in Uncrewed Air Systems (UAS).
The Forum was a chance to bring together key stakeholders within the defence sector and across industry to discuss common problems, share best practices and work together to strengthen the future of UAS capabilities in the UK – and that’s exactly what we did.
Three key opportunities
The UAS domain, both internationally and in the UK, is made up not only of large Defence organisations – such as BAE Systems, but also a huge number of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) and innovators, all jostling to share their innovative projects and bring value to this rapidly expanding and evolving part of defence. But amidst this competitive tumult, from my perspective we all share some key opportunities and we need to work together to take advantage of them.
- A collaborative ecosystem. One thing that resonates with me is that, by its very nature and innovative zeal, there is genuine collaboration across the sector when it comes to UAS. For example, I was at the Xponential exhibition in Orlando a few weeks ago and I was struck by how interconnected and collaborative UAS companies are. We now need to capitalise on a larger scale as an industry to help bring this to an operational outcome. We can do this by helping to bring together the diverse capabilities to our customers, work across normal competitive boundaries, and this given current world events is more important than ever.
- Putting capability first. My previous role at BAE Systems was in our Air sector – BAE Systems Air – and one of its key priorities is the Tempest programme, which is a proposed sixth-generation jet fighter under development on behalf of the Royal Air Force. At the heart of the programme is collaboration and putting customer capability first. BAE Systems has been joined by other Defence primes and SMEs all working to deliver maximum capability across competitive boundaries and by learning key lessons from this programme, we can put in place some best practice that can be applied across defence and deliver operational advantage for our customers. This is at the heart of the C5ISR and Digital Intelligence ethos and DNA and with regards to UAS, I feel that it’s something that will resonate with colleagues across the sector. My team and I will never close a door to a conversation that might benefit our customers and I encourage interested parties to get in touch.
- Cross sector learning. My view is that we shouldn’t be afraid to look at other industries and sectors and learn what’s happening in order to bring capabilities back into defence. In agriculture, for example, there is extensive 3D mapping capability but how we to bring that learning/insight into a Defence context is a really interesting challenge but in my mind it is a critical conversation to be had. Sometimes Defence can seem somewhat insular but I think particularly in UAS there is a real opportunity to look across different sectors to identify what technologies exist and then start to consider how they can translate into a capability for our defence customers.
So what makes this so difficult to put into practice? At the forum I elaborated on three key challenges I see as obstacles in achieving a maximum UAS capability.
Three key challenges
Unfortunately, innovations in UAS are not immune to the type of challenges which plague other areas of Defence, as well industry as a whole.
- What about security? While cross functional purposes offer huge potential, an ongoing challenge is the security of those systems. Security must be at the heart of the capability so when you want an innovative UAS you have to make sure it can’t be compromised because you don’t want to be handing your information advantage to the wrong people.
- Regulatory issues. UAS is probably one of the most innovative areas in defence when it comes to trialling new technologies, and it could be argued it is innovating far faster than other areas of the sector. But, what we’re seeing is that the regulations which underpin them aren’t moving at the same pace. We need to avoid creating technologies that are out of date by the time the regulations have been established which enables them to be utilised. We need to work with our regulatory bodies to overcome the challenges quicker, to deliver a capability sooner and more safely.
- Think small, deliver big. With the regulatory challenges and a crowded marketplace – how do we give SMEs a voice in front of the customers to stand out in a crowded space? How do we access the truly innovative technologies and pass that capability to the right areas? As a community, we need to better enable SME access into defence and work together to build an ecosystem for UAS that is a market leader and therefore relevant to a variety of markets across the globe. For BAE Systems this is about working together as a defence prime in tandem with SMEs so that they can bring agility and innovation to a solution that is going to evolve at pace and help us to meet the needs of our customers.
A good example which I feel covers the challenges discussed and how we use the opportunities to overcome them is the application of cross sector learning in UAS from the automotive industry and in particular Formula 1 (F1). They have to protect their data so that other teams can’t gain an advantage, they have to be able to manage the data from sensors quickly and efficiently react to change quickly and they have to be agile and innovative whilst meeting stringent regulations. They must work with the regulatory authorities to rapidly introduce change and they have built up a collaborative ecosystem of suppliers to rapidly test and introduce new technology. This could actually be a good aspirational model for the UAS community in the UK.
The need for advanced UAS capability is critical for defence on a global scale and we’re not looking at what may be happening in two decades’ time. No, we’re talking much sooner, we need to evolve our capabilities as quickly as possible and that will likely only happen if we all work together.