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High flying technologies - a Project Manager's personal perspective

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The Branch was grateful to local Corporate, Diligenta, for hosting this well attended event at the Friends Life Centre.

Our speaker tonight, Nick Brown, is an engineering Project Manager at MoD Defence Equipment and Support.  Tonight Nick will share his extensive experience of the challenges of introducing novel technology into service with the MoD, using the Black Hornet 18gm nano UAV (Unmanned Ariel Vehicle)  as a case study.

Nick explained that he would address three questions: why?. how?, and what?.  He explained that the catalyst point to where we are now with the procurement of advanced technology for Defence was in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.  Prior to 1989, MoD and Defence requirements drove technology development in order to gain and maintain a technological advantage over the opposition. Military developed products, such as the microchip where adapted for civilian use. Since the end of the Cold War, this has totally changed. Moore’s Law regarding the doubling of computing power and cheap manufacturing in China has accelerated the consumer market which now drives innovation, with global R&D budgets around $70Bn per annum.  Defence R&D has shrunk and now MoD reacts, adapts and exploits commercial technology, only investing in highly specialised areas such as aircraft, submarines, missiles and tanks.

Nick explained that the challenge for exploiting and implementing commercial technologies for defence requirements is to be able to understand the capabilities and potential they offer. He described how DE&S used an iterative experimental approach to develop and set realistic and achievable requirements that would allow future open competitive procurement.

Nick used the example of the Black Hornet UAV to illustrate the approach of three levels of experimentation and testing: Level A, bench testing, to confirm that the technology exists and does work; Level B, field and User testing, to see it the technology will work in the military environment,; and Level C, integrated User testing, to see how it can work with other equipment and systems.

For the case study, the requirement was to improve tactical situational awareness of troops operating in Afghanistan, to better understand what and who is around where you are. The question is how this requirement can be satisfied.  Market research helped identify UAVs as having potential, but with questions over operational safety and weight and soldier integration, which would need to be addressed. A range of UAVs were looked at including mini UAVs at 2Kg, but unexpectedly nano UAVs of less than 200gm were available commercially, based on mobile phone type cameras and GPS.  Level A showed that they would work, Level B and C testing in Cyprus against carefully designed scenarios demonstrated considerable benefit of nano UAVs compared with larger micro UAVs, including weight, ease of use and integration with solder systems.

Having demonstrated the potential utility, a major challenge was to convince senior stakeholders who’s perception was of a toy as nano UAvs had never been used in the military before.  Robust evidence was gathered to overcome this perception as well as realistic stakeholder demonstrations.

Having convinced stakeholders, a competition was held for the procurement of a nano UAv against the requirement specification developed through the experimentation process.  The winner was the Black Hornet, which is based on a helicopter type platform, weighs 18gm, has three cameras, and is directed by the operator, but fly’s itself.  It is so small that is cannot be heard at 20m and not seen at 100m.  The soldiers in Afghanistan love the system and it has made a big difference to operational effectiveness and safety.

To be able to take advantage of rampant commercial technology it is essential to have robust plans in place to understand the benefits and potential capability of new and emerging technologies, whilst maintaining the ability for open competitive procurement. Obsolescence is a real issue with commercial technologies and an obsolescence strategy is essential: do you upgrade, or do you throw away?

Nick's presentation can be seen below.  Previous presentations can be viewed here 


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