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The future of technology in the defence sector

Chris Alderson
Associate Director
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military soldier toy defence sector R&D

The UK defence industry is a formidable part of our economy. As part of the wider aerospace, defence, security and space sector it contributes to a £65 billion turnover, £35 billion of exports, 340k direct jobs and 10.4k apprentices.

It is also tremendously innovative, with constant research and development (R&D) required to help Britain’s military stay at the cutting edge to keep our shores safe. In September 2016 the government published a prospectus entitled: “Advantage through innovation: the Defence Innovation Initiative”.

This initiative recognises the value in reaching out to external partners – particularly small and medium sized enterprises. The ambition is to increasingly work with these to develop an innovative ecosystem that delivers the solutions to tomorrow’s defence challenges.

£800 million defence innovation fund

As part of the initiative, the government has launched an £800 million Defence Innovation Fund to be spent over 10 years. The first round of funding opened in April 2017 – to be awarded to companies pitching to solve a challenge posed in December 2016. The established great British success story of defence innovation looks set to start an exciting new chapter.

Defence research and development takes place all around the world, though. And we will now explore some of the incredible innovations that are taking place at home and abroad

Military drones

When drones first emerged into mainstream consciousness through the news, it was in a military context. In the last three years or so, the explosion in popularity in civilian drones has stolen the headlines: normally for negative reasons, despite their potential for positive uses.

The development of drones also known as UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) is a coming together of many areas or R&D:

  • Lightweight materials
  • Complex sensors
  • Battery power
  • Software
  • Motors

…to name the main ones. While there has been a proliferation of civilian drones, military spec hardware has also been coming along in leaps and bounds. Or should we say scuttles and scurries because there is a distinctly insectoid theme to the latest ones.

Nano UAVs

One nano UAV that has been in development for a while is the Flybot, a tiny drone that can fit on the tip of your finger.

The idea with drones like this is to make UAVs that can slip under the radar by mimicking animals, or being so small that they aren’t noticed at all. Miniaturising technology, and perfecting the biomechanics to make robots move naturally involves painstaking research and development.

In January 2017, it was reported that the US military had flight-tested a swarm of about 100 Perdix micro-drones. Rather than having a surveillance role these are intended to engage any enemy combatant and overwhelm them with sheer numbers. They are developed to adopt advanced swarm behaviours like collective decision-making, self-healing and adaptive formation flying.

This experiment tested their ability to be deployed at Mach 0.6 and temperatures of -10C.

Surveillance drones

Another exciting example of miniature drones is from UK company Animal Dynamics – a spin out from The Department of Zoology at Oxford University. They are developing a range of products that are inspired by their research into evolutionary adaptation. They are particularly interested in looking at whole animal systems – from “wingtip to wingtip, head to tail” – rather than just one aspect of an animal’s biomechanics.

One of their products, which has been highlighted by Defence Secretary Michael Fallon in his Department’s prospectus, is Skeeter. Like Flybot this is a small drone inspired by the insect world. In this case, by the dragonfly. With dual pairs of flapping wings, it is reported the Skeeter has unparalleled flying capabilities as well as delivering exceptional performance and efficiencies.

Hornet drone

The Black Hornet micro-drone was developed in Norway by Prox Dynamics who were recently bought out by FLIR Systems in a $134 million deal. The Black Hornet has been in use by the British military since 2012 making it the World’s first operational Personal Surveillance System.

This tiny drone weighs just 18kg, is 16cm long and is silent. Yet it has a range of 1.6km and a 25 minutes flying time, is weather proof and is equipped with three cameras and night vision capability. Able to be set up in just two minutes, it gives its users covert target surveillance on the battlefield, revolutionising the degree of information at a soldier’s fingertips.

Prox Dynamics describe the focus of their innovation as being on solving complex problems through modern electronics, new sensor technology, creative mechanical design and efficient low-cost production techniques. All these areas are relevant to R&D activity that has the potential to qualify for R&D tax credits.

Developing military robots

Boston Dynamics are a pre-eminent US company in the field of robotics. They spent several years developing a robot mule for the US military called LS3. With all the kit that the modern-day soldier has to lug around, having a robot to do the donkey work could be a major advantage.

Challenges of developing a robotic mule

The LS3 had been field tested since 2012 and could carry 180kg loads up to 20 miles over rugged terrain. The above video shows the remarkable biomechanics that enable the LS3 robot to walk like a four-legged beast. As with the drones we have already looked at, the LS3 sports a range of sensors that help it interact with the world around it. These include computer vision which enables it to follow its leader and GPS technology so co-ordinates can be inputted for it to travel to.

Sadly for LS3, it has never made it to operational use. In 2015 the funding ran out with some major challenges not overcome. In particular, the lawn mower-like noise of its engine, was considered to be too much of a liability in hostile territory where it would give troop positions away. Concerns were also raised regarding how the robot could be fixed if it were to break down in the field, and how to integrate it into a Marine patrol.

However, we feature it in this blog as a reminder that research and development projects do not need to have a successful outcome for them to qualify for R&D tax credits. Innovation simply needs to attempt to resolve scientific or technological uncertainty in order for a project to potentially qualify.

Innovative robotics projects

Another military robot with inspiration from the animal kingdom is the Mesh Worm.  Developed at Harvard, MIT and Seoul National University with DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) funding, this little fellow contains wires made from a shape memory alloy. They are stimulated by an electric current to contract and then return to their original shape. When woven into a plastic mesh it simulates the biomechanics of an earthworm (known as peristalsis) to slide across surfaces.

Despite moving at the pace of an earthworm this unusual robot has several advantageous characteristics that could be useful in a military context. For instance, it moves silently so would be well-suited to covert operations. It is also very hardy. It can be trodden on, or even hit with a hammer without sustaining damage. Made almost entirely from soft materials it would also have the ability to crawl and squeeze through tight spaces. Here he is in action:

Research into live-fire robot targets

A completely different kind of robot is Marathon Targets’ live-fire target. This Australian-based company specialises in building robotic targets to improve the combat marksmanship skills of troops. Their robots look like mannequins on Segways, but these 3D mobile targets are reported to offer significant enhancements over conventional rail-mounted or pop-up targets.

The robots can handle uneven terrain, avoid obstacles such as lightly wooded areas, respond autonomously and simulate human movements. So, for example, change speed from walking to running and quickly alter direction.

Marathon Targets report that tests carried out by the US Marine Corps found a 104% improvement in combat accuracy within a 24-hour period after switching to the robotic target. And that the US Army’s Research Institute documented a 3.7 times increase in range throughput when compared to established training methods.

This, of course, is an Australian example so wouldn’t qualify in the UK. But, if we think of their live-fire robot project in terms of what HMRC would be looking for in a R&D tax credit claim, we can see that this company has used technological innovation to quantifiably advance their field. This is a key requirement in a successful UK R&D tax credit claim.

Medical advances in the military

DARPA prothsetics

Inevitably and sadly during conflict, servicemen and women suffer serious injury: loss of limbs, brain damage, paralysis. Therefore, various government and private sector organisations invest heavily in technology to help disabled veterans lead as normal a life as possible.

Prosthetics is one area that gets a lot of attention. Last year, DARPA – with the John Hopkins Applied Physics Lab – revealed a revolutionary mind-controlled prosthetic arm that could give unparalleled levels of control to people using artificial arms.

Over many years DARPA worked with a test subject to work out the intention of the brain from the signals that it sent out. They have reassigned nerve endings and attached the prosthetic directly to the bone. A special armband, worn around the upper arm takes the signals to the muscles there, and sends them via Bluetooth to a computer in the prosthetic arm which then applies the movement. It has virtually the same range of motion as a human arm but won’t tire (unless its battery runs out).

Memory restoration

Traumatic brain injuries are relatively common among combat veterans which can lead to extensive memory loss. This is another field in which DARPA takes a strong interest. As part of President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative, they are conducting research and development into a memory restoration device known as RAM (that stands for restoring active memory).

The first stage of this project involves computer modelling with the purpose of describing how neurons code memories. Once they have completed that (small!) task, they can move on to the equally simple task of creating a neural interface that can re-join gaps between neurons caused by traumatic brain injury.

What could the impact of such cutting-edge military research and development be? Well, in the US alone, DARPA say that there have been 270,000 cases of traumatic brain injury since the year 2000. And you can add to that 1.7 million civilian cases. So, innovations in this field could transform the lives of millions of people globally for the better.

Innovation in real-life Iron Man suits

From comic book to combat operations, real-life Iron Man suits may not be too far away from reality. The idea is that they give a human soldier super-human abilities. Particularly endurance, strength and armour. There are a number of different concepts being developed.

What is TALOS?

In Greek mythology, Talos was a giant bronze automaton built to protect Europa in Crete from pirates. So you can see why the name was chosen for a modern day Iron Man suit: TALOS stands for Tactical Assault Light Operators Suit. It is an interesting case study in R&D.

TALOS was developed at a rapid prototyping event held in Tampa, Florida in 2014. 200 experts from industry, government agencies and education were locked in a room. They were tasked with brainstorming and modelling a suit that offered ballistic protection, cutting-edge tactical capabilities and enhanced strategic effectiveness.

They were quickly able to transform their ideas into physical models using foam cut-outs, clay sculpting and then 3D-printing techniques. Such an event was as much about identifying problems and where leaps of technology would be required as anything else. In the case of TALOS developing a man-portable untethered power source is one of the biggest challenges that needs to be overcome. Devising a super-light, yet hard, strong material for armour would be handy too.

Interestingly, although there are some seriously impressive sensors already developed – just think about the ones packed into your smart phone for starters – they are not fit for purpose when it comes to Iron Man suits. Latency is one of the biggest problems: the time lag between processing information and sending it to the human brain. The very best sensors available now still induce nausea within 30 minutes of use.

Despite all these technical uncertainties, the team aim to have a Mark-5 prototype suit ready in 2018, showing just how long-term many military R&D projects are.

R&D behind exoskeleton suits

One rival, or perhaps complementary, technology to TALOS is the Warrior Web. This is a soft light-weight under-suit being designed with the intention of increasing a soldier’s strength and endurance whilst reducing common injuries and long-term medical conditions, as well as fatigue.

DARPA, again, are co-ordinating the research and development of this suit although many other organisations are involved.

The exoskeletal suit works by emulating the work of leg muscles, joints and tendons, reducing the work that the wearer’s actual body has to do. It is being tested at the US Army Research Laboratory which boasts a cross-country obstacle course, regular obstacle course and a biomechanics laboratory. So field test data and laboratory data can be collected side by side – an important part of the R&D process. Looking under the bonnet of their R&D, it is interesting to see the range of data they are collecting, which includes:

  • Stride length
  • Stride frequency
  • Time feet touch the ground
  • Energy expenditure
  • Leg muscle activity

With so much R&D taking place in this area, it is exciting to see what is around the corner. Particularly when you consider how it may help soldiers stay safe and healthy – both while on operations and when they leave service.

Military innovation transferred to the civilian world

Warfare and defence are great drivers of innovation. And often that innovation spills over into the civilian world to enhance millions of lives. The development of aviation, radar, GPS, and the Internet all have military R&D to thank to some extent. Even the Warrior Web technology mentioned above is being developed in the civilian world by the Wyss Institute at Harvard to provide enhanced mobility to people with lower limb impairment such as stroke victims and Parkinson’s Disease and Multiple Sclerosis suffers.

Are you carrying out R&D in the defence sector?

It is an exciting time to be an innovative SME in the Defence sector. If your company is designing innovative products for the defence sector, have a conversation with ForrestBrown to see exactly how much of your activity qualifies for R&D tax credits. ForrestBrown’s team of chartered tax advisers specialises in robustly identifying R&D: uncovering qualifying activities that are otherwise missed, but not over-claiming either. Speak to us to find out more.