BAE Systems is one of the largest defence and security companies in the world, employing 83,400 people across 40 different countries. So you might be excused for assuming that the company shields its latest products from its competitors, working hard to ensure that no one else finds out about new technology developments before they can be launched on the global market. In actual fact, that’s far from the truth. One of the things the company’s scientists pride themselves on most is their ability to cooperate and collaborate with others; other companies, other universities, other countries, and other areas of their own company. BAE Systems has hundreds of exciting new developments under its belt — it is the sixth biggest patent applicant in the UK, typically filing between 120 and 140 patents each year for new inventions — and many of these projects involve working with other, external companies. In fact the F-35, the latest stealth fighter jet that BAE Systems has been collaborating on, is the biggest global collaboration defence project in the world.
Open innovation may be one of the things that BAE Systems excels at — but it isn’t a recent development. BAE Systems has always collaborated across boundaries; the Tornado aircraft, which was developed in the late 1960s and early ’70s, was an early example of this type of European collaboration. The company operates across global markets, after all, so it makes perfect sense.
It isn’t just in the more typical areas of aerospace and defence that BAE Systems is forging its own way, either. Philip Woods is Chief Technologist at BAE Systems — in charge of strategy and innovation, and of convincing other parts of the company to think as innovatively as he does. Some of the projects that he finds most exciting at BAE Systems are those that come from working with some of the world’s most innovative SMEs. One of those projects is Broadsword Spine, BAE Systems’ bid to revolutionise the way soldiers and members of the emergency services can work on the frontline. Collaborating with a small company called Intelligent Textiles based in Surrey, the companies’ scientists have created an invisible network that is built directly into clothing, by using conductive fabrics instead of wires and cables. Electronic devices can be plugged straight into a vest, jacket or belt to be hooked into power and data allowing a soldier to be ‘wire-free’ when fighting. ‘These days soldiers and members of the emergency services carry many systems around with them, each carrying their own powerpack and set of wires, which can break and get in the way,’ says Woods. The new Broadsword system simplifies the wires and power sources, making the battlefield technology far more robust, and most importantly, reducing the weight that a soldier has to carry. Having made the prototype, the challenge now is to make these vests affordable, easy to manufacture, and therefore saleable to our armed forces and emergency services. This is, admits Woods, ‘slightly pushing the boundaries of what you would expect from a normal defence company’, but working with other companies on this type of product makes perfect sense. ‘Twenty years ago, defence was on the forefront of developing technology,’ says Woods. ‘Nowadays it remains at the forefront of technology, but working with other sectors with significant technology investment is important.’
It isn’t, therefore, just in the defence sphere that this approach applies. As the Rio Olympics approach, BAE Systems has also been providing engineering support to UK Sport; developing technology which can help British athletes to reach the medal podium. The company’s unmanned aircraft technology has been adapted for Team GB’s cycling BMX squad to track the trajectory of riders both on the ground and in the air; their advanced cycling ergometer measures the power output of elite cyclists and, in taekwondo, BAE Systems’ engineers have analysed the complicated new ‘scoring vests’ to allow the team’s coaches to work out which techniques will propel them to medal position. Other sports — such as sailing and bobsled — have also benefited from BAE Systems’ expertise. In the case of sailing, the company has been working with the Land Rover BAR (Ben Ainslie Racing) team to adapt a state-of-the-art communications device that transmits sound waves through bones in the head rather than an earpiece, and was originally developed for the battlefield — meaning that sailors (and soldiers) can use their ears to hear what’s going on around them, while still receiving communications from their team.
Of course, as a global company with so many employees in so many different countries, a unique benefit of BAE Systems is the advantages that can be gained from collaborating internally. With the F-35 — the next-generation fighter plane — the rear fuselage is manufactured at BAE Systems’ base in north-west England, then shipped to the US, where a BAE Systems team also installs the electronic warfare suite — thereby maximising the company’s global skillsets.
Far from keeping their projects under cover, BAE Systems focuses on sharing technological achievements, working together, and making the most of every department, and every company’s different skillsets. In fact, as Woods puts it, without a strategy of open innovation, ‘We’d be disadvantaged in today’s world. The days of companies isolating themselves are over. We all need to collaborate to develop the best technologies and remain competitive.’