Richard Tyler, Enterprise Editor for the Telegraph reports that the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) is encouraging small and medium businesses to produce tech-savvy equipment for the forces.
A new technology developed for civilian use will now be brought to market with grants from the MoD. This technology developed by a small business to help children with cerebral palsy communicate more easily is being prepared for the next generation of military combat clothing.
The cutting edge electronic circuits are woven into fabric and the technology is now set to be integrated into soldiers’ combat gear to power communication equipment and protection systems and to reduce the number of heavy batteries that soldiers have to carry.
This two-man company has also in the past created cloth based keyboards to be used in tanks. The MoD was looking at a method to minimize the damage done to traditional computer keyboards from the continuous vibrations in the vehicles.
“It does not hurt you if it hits you on the head but it’s not good as a step to get into a tank,” says Asha Peta Thompson, director of Intelligent Textiles, from the Staines, Middlesex, based firm. Ms Thompson said the journey from disabled children's research project at Brunel’s “Design for Life” Centre to military hardware has been an unexpected one.
Peter Luff, the defence equipment minister, is keen to see more of the MoD’s budget spent with small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) businesses and noted the Whitehall department already sourced 45pc of its needs from this group. He said small businesses could make better products at lower costs than many large MoD suppliers. “We think it’s in all our interests to use them more,” he said.
Mr Luff praised the Centre for Defence Enterprise, set up under Labour, and the Defence and Security Organisation, an agency of the Business Department that helps companies with military technologies secure export orders. “One of the things we want to do is help SMEs export more effectively. It’s quite easy to do the big companies but to help the small guys is quite complex,” he said.
The new trade minister, Lord Green, the former chairman of HSBC, will lead the Government’s efforts to promote the export of defence technologies. Lord Green had initially indicated that he had “issues” with representing defence exporters, but has since accepted the formal role.
Ms Thompson revealed, “I never thought I would be working for a military market at all. But there is a real problem to solve to reduce the burden on the soldiers and make them more effective,” she said. A weaver and knitter by trade, she teamed up with Professor Stan Swallow, an electronics lecturer at Brunel University in 2000, to develop the technology and the first commercial application in men’s clothing; Armani suits with accessories ranging from circuits to power iPods.
Consumer demand failed to materialise and the pair explored other options. Six years ago they started to look at military applications. “Wearable technology was very much a technology push in the commercial market at the time. It was only going to be a niche market for iPod controllers. For the military it’s more of a technology pull. They have a need there that they need to solve,” said Ms Thompson.
Intelligent Systems’s break came when they attended an exhibition in Canada where they were spotted up by a Canadian company to develop a system for the Canadian army.
“They took us to NATO to present at a meeting. We got picked up by the MoD there and they asked why have we not got this? They have been brilliant since,” she says. “We are hoping that they are writing into the specification that our technology or a similar one will be needed in the next generation of soldier systems,” she further added.
Another CDE backed company is Robosynthesis, whose robotics technology is being examined for use by special operations teams as well as teachers in secondary schools.
Philip Norman, chief executive, says he developed the robotic modular system technology while living near Toulouse in France, the heart of the country’s aerospace industry.
Built of rugged plastic, the systems are designed to be carried and put together without tools to create robots that can operate across all terrains and carry out multiple functions like intelligence gathering, surveillance and bomb disposal.
Having struggled to establish the business in France, he returned to Britain in February 2009, to explore his original target markets: schools, toys and utilities.
Almost two years on, it is the military application that is now furthest down the track. “It’s not necessarily what we had in mind but if you can use it to do things in hazardous zones and not risk the lives of people we are not going to complain,” said Mr Norman.
An engineering firm Cosworth has also secured military work and is applying its Formula 1 technology to the battlefields of Afghanistan. John Franklin, technical lead at Cosworth, said next week his team will blow up a Mastiff armoured vehicle to prove that the black boxes installed in racing cars can be used in military vehicles to assess the damage caused by road side bombs and provide warning of the possible injuries to soldiers riding inside. “There are a lot of details but fundamentally the technology is fit for purpose,” he said.
Mr Franklin said that the grant from the CDE had helped de-risk the project for Cosworth. “But it’s much more than the money. It is the resource and access to their explosive testing. Both have to be there for it to be successful. We can say as a company we would like to engage with the MoD but it’s a massive and incomprehensible organisation. It needs something like the CDE” he said. He added that Cosworth had also seen a recent change within the MoD in its attitude to supporting small companies export their defence technologies.