FEATURE: Military innovation picks up pace as MoD explores uncrewed and electric vehicles

Tanya Weaver

The Rheinmetall Mission Master robotic vehicle is designed to provide load carriage to the dismounted soldier
The Rheinmetall Mission Master robotic vehicle is designed to provide load carriage to the dismounted soldier

Keeping pace with the speed of change of technology is challenging for any organisation.

But doing so helps provide a competitive advantage, which is what all organisations want, not least of all the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD). Its supply chain is competing commercially on an international stage but the MOD itself is also competing with potential adversaries. 

Embracing innovative technologies is a key focus for the Defence Equipment and Support Agency (DE&S), the MOD’s largest professional delivery organisation, which since 2014 has awarded over 4,500 contracts, worth more than £47bn, and managed 80% of the UK’s biggest defence programmes. 

As stated in the recently launched DE&S 2025 strategy, the agency aims to work at increasing pace to help provide the armed forces with some of the most advanced technology equipment needed to maintain their operational advantage. This means rapidly developing cutting-edge capabilities that have been acquired from industry and getting them into use by front-line commands. Within this, the agency’s Future Capability Group (FCG) plays a key role.

James Gavin, the head of the group, explains: “The FCG has a mandate to ‘explore’ new technology and capability areas towards that which is ‘exploitable’. We are exploring areas like safety, policy and how to maintain equipment against processes and real-world trials. We are also maturing capabilities to be ready to be exploited in operations.”

Keeping pace

Developing and exploiting these new technologies at pace means having agile processes that also allow for working ‘at pace’. So, in the past year, the FCG has reformed its acquisition processes.  

“The FCG’s role is to explore and exploit technology, but it’s also to explore and exploit new acquisition methods. We need to keep pace at the ‘speed of relevance’ and this means considering new methods in addition to the traditional Waterfall-based approaches. By applying the ‘Agile by Default’ mechanism to buying equipment and software, we are able to explore and iteratively develop capability with the user and other stakeholders so as to get it into operation more rapidly,” says Gavin.

Called BATSO – Buy And Try at Scale Operate – this new acquisition framework is a shift from detailed, up-front requirements previously outlined in a competitive tender where companies joined the framework and had one chance to bid. Now it’s about acquiring small quantities of equipment to explore their utility. As a result, this also makes the work more accessible to small and medium-sized companies.

Gavin says: “This sees an overall intent for multiple acquisition competitions. Following the trials, feedback will be given to all framework members on updated requirements. This allows them to learn how to improve their products and then update them ready for the next competition. 

“This iterative cycle of experimenting, feeding back and improving means that we end up developing something a lot faster than we would have normally from a supply chain. At the same time, customers will be trialling the equipment and deciding if they are ready to make larger-scale purchases.”

Heavy lifting

This new acquisition framework has been used in the FCG’s most recent competition, which went live at the end of June. The Heavy Lift Challenge is looking to replace helicopters with autonomous heavy-lift Uncrewed Air Systems (UAS) for use mainly at sea. 

“Not only are we using our new BATSO framework here, but this work is also revolutionary in how quickly we’ve got the competition to go live. Previously it could take up to six months but we managed to engage with the Royal Navy which is involved in this challenge and get it done in three weeks,” says Gavin.  

The reason for this competition is to look at using large UAS to replace helicopters for lightweight transport tasks, such as carrying a radio or cargo between ships at sea, or, in the future, weapons. There are various advantages for this both in terms of cost savings and keeping helicopters ready for missions where they are more needed.

Gavin says: “It costs £7,000 an hour or even double that to fly a helicopter. Why have people risking their lives in a helicopter when a UAS can do the same job and it costs significantly less? We see a lot of potential for the use of UAS within Royal Navy, and army, scenarios.” 

With the competition having gone live, companies are given a month in which to respond. The first stage is what Gavin refers to as a bake-off in which companies are able to demonstrate their UAS technology capabilities, which the FCG then marks against a set of basic criteria. If the MOD makes an acquisition using the BATSO framework, it will then iteratively work with the supply chain to trial and develop the technology so as to accelerate the pace of development and reduce time to market.

“With a UAS you can iteratively improve quite quickly the hardware components and the software. With artificial intelligence, for instance, you constantly need to improve the machine learning because even when trialling and using it operationally you will be learning about what works best, which means having to go back and constantly recoding the software,” explains Gavin.  

The FCG is also keen with this competition, and others, to pivot off commercial technology. It makes sense – why reinvent the wheel? Or drone, in this instance, as there is a lot of innovation in the commercial UAV technology field, especially with the increased development of ‘delivery drones’ and air-taxis. The FCG calls it ‘leveraging cross-sector investments’. But it’s not a straightforward case of bringing civilian technology into a military environment and simply being able to use it. There are many policy and safety considerations, which is another reason why this iterative approach works so well.  

Projects to be investigated at the new Expeditionary Robotics Centre of Expertise include the nano-UAS initiative

Projects to be investigated at the new Expeditionary Robotics Centre of Expertise include the nano-UAS initiative, which will explore how technologies like this UAVTek Bug can transform the ability of soldiers to expand their understanding of the battlefield

Gavin says: “There are many challenges, such as being able to operate in extreme weather. Being able to operate in a hostile environment is more than just environmental. There could be a potential adversary trying to jam or interfere with the operation. In such a scenario, and while many may think that a UAV in this environment will be fully autonomous, for defence applications there has to be a person in the loop making decisions, as it could have quite serious implications.” 

Operational advantage

Robotics and autonomous systems is a key focus area for the FCG, which in the last year has launched the Expeditionary Robotics Centre of Expertise. The centre, which operates from MOD Abbey Wood in Bristol and from the Army BattleLab in Dorset, aims to use its collaborative and agile-by-design approach to ensure that new developments and technology enter into service as early as possible. 

Gavin says: “This work is all about making the front-line commands operations more efficient and effective militarily, which is often referred to as ‘operational advantage’. An example is in using Uncrewed Ground Vehicles (UGVs) to drop off key supplies, such as water, food or ammunition, or even in the future to patrol the perimeter of a base and to keep people out of harm’s way. This will reduce the need for soldiers to move into areas of possible exposure or harm, as well as being a lot cheaper than several soldiers using a vehicle to move the supplies. 

“We’ll be launching further ‘last mile resupply’ competitions during 2021 and 2022 that will be exploring new UGVs and UASs, as well as digital technologies, which are increasingly becoming central to the capabilities we deliver.” 

A hybrid future

In its DE&S 2025 strategy, the agency is not only aiming to modernise defence but to do so by meeting environmental challenges. This can be done in several ways, with an obvious one being to shift away from internal combustion engines to electric powertrains. While the 2030 ban on new combustion engine vehicles only applies to those under 3.5 tonnes, larger defence vehicles, which run on diesel, can bring advantages if they use electric and hybrid technologies, beyond reduced fuel consumption.

Electric drivetrains do offer several advantages over traditional drivetrains for military applications. “Both EV and hybrid vehicles have a significant advantage in being able to operate silently, as well as providing great off-road performance due to fantastic torque,” says Gavin.  

But there are challenges and technical hurdles that have to be overcome that are particular to a defence environment, including more resilient battery technology, the need for longer ranges and the need to recharge at speed. “One of the great opportunities we see will be teaming up with cross-sector civil capability development for off-road vehicles, such as agriculture, construction, mining and even aid operations, that have similar future off-road EV requirements,” says Gavin. 

In the near term, the MOD is starting to switch to EVs for its hire cars and ‘white fleet’. For its ‘green fleet’, it is exploring hybrid and EV technologies. “DE&S and others have been working with the Army Future Force Development (FFD) team and industry to explore this area. FFD will be issuing a battlefield electrification strategy soon and this will be key to directing how the defence innovation ecosystem explores and exploits this new technology area,” says Gavin.  

DE&S has set itself an ambitious strategy to use agile approaches to bridge the gap between the pace of change in technologies and the requirements for frontline operations. But it’s a challenge it is keen to embrace. As Gavin says, “It’s exciting to see cutting-edge innovation being exploited for real and helping those on the front line who’ve got ideas of what they want and being able to help them make it happen a lot quicker than before. And, using our new agile methodology, we’re also able to engage with and really help grow small firms, which is great.”

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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