When Frederick Simms and Evelyn Ellis first introduced the motor car to the roads of the United Kingdom in 1895, the laws of the land stipulated a speed limit of 4mph. This would have made the first British long-distance motor car journey from Southampton to Malvern quite an undertaking.
Even before the arrival of the motor car, apprehension surrounded technological developments. The first modern railway line, opened in 1830, ran from Liverpool to Manchester with trains travelling at the previously unimaginable speed of 30mph. There were real concerns that it would be impossible for a human to breathe while travelling at such a speed, or that watching the passing world flash by so quickly would render passengers completely blind.
I mention these examples not to trivialise or dismiss fears about disruptive and emerging technology, but to illustrate how natural and commonplace it is for people to worry about it. The reality is that advances in science and technology, when properly thought through, can be a wholly positive thing and should be embraced. Embracing disruptive technologies is not a new concept for the defence sector — in our world you have to disrupt yourself before it’s done to you!
Pushing the boundaries
At BAE Systems we made the psychological shift from hardware to software 30 years ago with the Typhoon fighter jet. Its onboard systems contain more than 100 million lines of computer code. Today our engineers collaborate with academics at the University of Birmingham to develop augmented reality systems as small as a contact lens. This groundbreaking concept intelligently ‘mixes’ together the real and virtual world and lets operators take real-time control of their environments like never before.
The Astute-class submarine, now in service, can circle the globe without surfacing, extracting oxygen from seawater. And Taranis, a demonstrator programme for unmanned combat aircraft, is making huge strides in aeronautic technological capabilities. It is the most advanced British aircraft ever produced.
So for us at BAE Systems it has never been more important that UK companies embrace disruptive and emerging technologies. Staying ahead of the curve is vitally important to us, and in 2014 BAE Systems spent £1.34 billion on research and development. Not only does this help to ensure the adaptability, quality and resilience of our supply chain, it also improves the talent pool, access to investment and future enhancements of our own products and services, and ultimately provides our armed forces and security organisations with the skills and equipment they need to keep the nation safe.
Embracing new skills
We know that progress in technology and data analysis can generate economic growth and opportunity. We know that high-technology, advanced manufacturing-focused companies lead to high-value jobs, services and products. The UK needs world-class science and maths skills not only to compete in a global market but to protect the nation. But are we still able to produce the next generation of engineers, data scientists and software coders?
We are living through a new industrial revolution — the digital revolution. Now is a fantastically exciting time to be an engineer. You can talk to the products you have created; know where they are, what they are doing, how they are feeling and whether they need repairing. This new frontier can help us to attract the talent we need.
Adapting to the changes brought by technology has become part of how we all interact with the world, but there are still challenges in the way we respond. The pace and scale of change is only going to accelerate thanks to developments in the ‘internet of things’, data analytics, additive manufacturing, robotics and virtual reality.
Arguably, the catalyst for digital change has been the United States, in particular Silicon Valley. Apple, Google, Amazon and others have put the world in your pocket and let you access it from wherever you can get a mobile or Wi-Fi signal. But the generation of all this data presents huge challenges and opportunities.
So how can the UK embrace emerging technologies to ensure we stay at the forefront of innovation? I believe partnerships are essential. The speed and global reach of digital innovation means that no organisation can go it alone. At BAE Systems we work closely with a range of partners from other major defence companies, SMEs and universities to deliver new capabilities and cost and efficiency benefits for our customers.
As with most large companies, we are only as strong as our supply chain. For BAE Systems this represents around 7,000 UK companies. It’s vital that they too can invest in people and capabilities for the future. We do lots of work in this area, including training apprentices for supplier companies. Later this year, as part of the Lancashire Enterprise Zone, we are opening a new apprentice training centre at Samlesbury, near Preston, in which we have invested £15 million. Engineering apprentices from across the region will be trained there.
Partnerships with central and local government are important, too, and the Taranis programme is a terrific example of government and industry working together with an eye on the future. Jointly funded by the Ministry of Defence and UK industry, it shows how the UK can develop critical technologies for the next generation of combat air systems, be they manned or unmanned.
International collaboration is another vital aspect. The world is fully interconnected, so whether it is partnering with Germany, Italy and Spain to develop the Eurofighter Typhoon, working with the USA on the F-35 Lightning II, or with our French colleagues on the recently announced £1.5 billion development of a next-generation combat air system, collaboration is a key component for success.
Strategic investment, identifying innovation as it develops in fast-moving entrepreneurial companies, along with investing in development, will ensure we retain our position at the cutting edge. We are really excited about the investment we made last year in Reaction Engines to accelerate development of an advanced air-breathing rocket engine, which has the potential to become as big a leap forward as the shift from propellers to the jet engine.
Reasons for optimism
The UK has a strong history in shaping and embracing game-changing advances in science and technology. Names such as James Watt, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, John Logie Baird and Tim Berners-Lee are testament to our ability to create advances which change the world.
The UK has world-leading capabilities in the aerospace and automotive manufacturing sectors, while pioneering companies such as Dyson and our friends at Reaction Engines are generating disruptive technologies which have the rest of the world playing catch-up.
We live in a brave new world — but our proven ability to nurture and develop not only new technologies but the talent which drives their invention will help us to make sure that we remain at the forefront of technological innovation in the years to come.
Nigel Whitehead is BAE’s Group Managing Director, Programmes & Support