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UK MOD thrust on civil-military synergies, British DARPA and increasing research capacity to boost military innovation

Innovation and Digital Transformation has become a strategic priority for the UK MOD. Recognising that military technological superiority is no longer a reality, UK Defence leadership has embraced ‘innovation’ and ‘digital transformation’ as the processes by which the Armed Forces and the Defence and Technology Industrial Base can build and sustain capability advantage as a single actor and as part of the NATO Alliance.


Additionally, the UK Armed Forces, like its core allies and partners, has shifted towards a more agile, domain-agnostic, digitally-enabled and information-centric concept of operations. This has fostered enthusiasm for working more closely with the UK’s innovation ecosystem and adopting user-oriented concept exploration, problem-solving, and digital technology generation/integration to engender more rapid testing, experimentation and acquisition of new software and digital architectures. By their very nature, multi-domain or ‘system of systems’ military operational constructs require multi-disciplinary thinking and cross-sector ideas generation within the broader UK Defence and industrial ecosystem.


Defence secretary Ben Wallace and chief scientific adviser, Angela McLean, unveiled UK’s new Science and Technology Strategy in  July 2020 under which plans to boost Innovation in UK defence industry. Building on the UK’s rich heritage in science and technology, this new strategy will focus on finding and funding the breakthroughs that will shape the future, and ensure the armed forces are equipped to meet tomorrow’s threats. It will also have a renewed focus on data, including capture and curation, which will underpin research to identify threat trends and deliver generation-after-next military hardware.


The UK government will spend an extra £2 billion a year by 2020-21– a 20 per cent increase in government research and development spending- on collaboration between business and scientists as well as creating a technology fund modelled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa).


The UK government is proposing to set up a funding body as part of “a new approach” to backing emerging fields of research and technology, to be broadly modelled on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which claims credit for technologies including the global positioning system and the internet. The ambition to create structures that allow for even more rapid and flexible funding chimes with proposals contained in a forthcoming government report setting out a broad vision for the UK’s post-Brexit research system.


There will also be a second stream of funding to “increase research capacity and business innovation, to further support the UK’s world-leading research base and to unlock its full potential”. The UK’s new research body, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), will award this funding on the basis of “national excellence”, while there will also be more grant funding for Innovate UK.


The extra £2 billion ,  will be distributed by UK research councils and Innovate UK in two funding streams. The first is an “Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund”, a cross-disciplinary fund that will “support collaborations between business and the UK’s science base, which will set identifiable challenges for UK researchers to tackle”. Based on Darpa, the fund will back technologies “decided by an evidence-based process”.


Sarah Main, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), said that the announcement was “truly exciting”. “To stay cutting edge, it will be vital that balance is maintained between discovery-led and challenge-led programmes, but I am encouraged that these decisions will rest with UKRI,” she said. Alice Gast, president of Imperial College London, said that the extra money showed that the chancellor had “recognised that investing in research and innovation is the best way to raise productivity”.


UK Defence Innovation Initiative to bring future-tech and ideas to the Armed Forces

UK  government has launched  new defence innovation initiative to transform how defence deals with the challenges of tomorrow, and to gain critical advantage  defence and security forces.  The UK Government released its innovation policy inn 2016 as  the Defence Innovation Initiative and subsequently a Defence Innovation Priorities white paper and Defence Technology Framework in 2019. These recommend a strategic approach to innovation; tying into military capabilities and concepts; greater engagement with industry and academia; improving accessibility for stakeholders outside of the traditional Defence community.


In a major speech at the University of Oxford, the Defence Secretary announced the formation of a world class panel which will help challenge and drive the Ministry of Defence’s innovation agenda. The Panel will be charged with driving forward the MOD’s Innovation Initiative, which aims to encourage imagination, ingenuity and entrepreneurship, in pursuit of maintaining a military advantage in the future.


During his speech, the Defence Secretary also announced the launch of a two year £8 million second phase of innovative research and development, exploring the future of unmanned air systems. Developed in partnership with Leonardo Helicopters, the Rotary Wing Unmanned Air Systems (RWUAS) Capability Concept Demonstrator will be a vital tool in discovering how unmanned air systems can support our personnel on the battlefield of the future by developing new concepts and technologies.


UK MOD wants to tap commercial Innovation in areas such as big data, analytics, autonomy and robotics. In December 2013, the European Council itself tasked the European Defence Agency and other bodies to better exploit civil-military synergies. The European council suggested “Desegmentation of civil and military research”, by allowing funding to flow from one side to the other, major spin-offs between defence and civil research could be achieved. “It is worth remembering that few technologies are military or civil by nature, especially at low technological readiness.


SMEs are at the heart of the Innovation Initiative, the goal is to work more effectively with businesses and academics across the UK – and particularly with SMEs which might not normally think of themselves as Defence suppliers. Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon said: Backed by an £800M innovation fund, we want to transform defence and work with small firms, academics and others to find solutions to the threats to our security. This panel of world class innovators will bring their drive and expert insights to the vital task of keeping the UK ahead of our adversaries and boosting our prosperity.


Science & Technology Strategy

The Strategy & Technology will also be central to the government’s ambition for the UK to cement its status as a world leading science superpower, set out in its ambitious Research & Development Roadmap in July. Mr Wallace said: “We are in a very real race with our adversaries for technological advantage. What we do today will lay the groundwork for decades to come. Proliferation of new technologies demands our science and technology is threat driven and better aligned to our needs in the future.”


Angela McLean added: “We need a clear focus on what we want science and technology to achieve. I will champion a challenge-led approach, based on trends across science, technology and the military, to set out what we need to be able to do in the future and how we can build towards it through our S&T activity.”


The new chancellor, Rishi Sunak, presented the current Tory government’s first budget in May 2020 since winning the general election last December. Sunak pledged government spending on research and development would increase to £22bn annually by 2024-25, almost double the amount earmarked for this fiscal year.


The Innovation and Research InSight Unit (IRIS) was set up in 2016 to provide strategic advice on the Defence implications of emerging external science and technology, to strengthen the ability of the Department to understand and respond. The intent was to help Defence better head off surprises and take up opportunities to ensure military advantage against potential and real adversaries — to better compete — in the emerging security environment. A small team in the Directorate for Defence science and technology, IRIS conducts strategic studies on emerging technologies, examining their benefits for Defence’s challenges, the global development landscape, and how MOD can more effectively adopt them.


“An Innovation and Research Insights Unit (IRIS) will anticipate emerging trends in technology and analyse the implications for UK Defence and Security, informing critical decisions to maintain our military advantage and protect the UK.” Some of the technologies completed  are Surveillance drones inspired by dragonflies, laser weapons, mobile robots that can inspect incidents involving chemical materials, sensors that use gravity to survey underground structures in minutes, and virtual reality helmets to practice calling in simulated air strikes.


The Ministry of Defence currently spends up to 20% of its Science and Technology budget on cutting edge “disruptive capability” projects. Disruptive capabilities displace an established technology and shake up industry.

Past  projects include:

  • A tiny Unmanned Aerial System with flapping wings inspired by the biology of a dragonfly, currently in development with Animal Dynamics. The ‘micro-drone’ will use cutting edge micro-engineering for unparalleled levels of performance. This has the potential to have a huge impact on intelligence-gathering in future operations in complex urban environments.
  • A new Quantum Gravimeter developed with the University of Birmingham could allow us to survey underground structures in minutes rather than weeks. This portable gravity sensing system uses cold atom quantum technology and two gravimeters coupled together for the first time to allow for higher sensitivity and reliability when carrying out surveys, enhanced robustness to external noise sources and drastically reduced measurement time. Applications for our Armed Forces range from spotting enemy tunnels to supporting disaster relief.
  • And we are developing a capability demonstrator with industry that will investigate the potential of laser weapons to target and defeat aerial threats.


Lt Colonel Richard Craig, Staff Officer for Robotics and Autonomous Systems, said: “The Autonomous Last Mile Resupply project is looking at the technologies for use in ways that could transform the delivery of logistics in not only Land, but also Maritime operations. It has the potential to reduce the amount of supplies stored at the front line and increase the speed of resupply. There is the potential to increase combat mass as the technology enables the redeployment of current manpower onto different tasks.”


UK Research and Innovation, which has also invested £1.2 million in the Last Mile Challenge, is funding the project under their Robots for a Safer World Challenge, as part of the Industrial Challenge Strategy Fund. The investment aims to support the development of new technologies for extreme and challenging environments, including nuclear energy, deep mining or space.


The UK government recently announced an £800 million, taxpayer-funded Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria). The agency is designed to fund the sort of high-risk basic research that many, including Boris Johnson’s adviser Dominic Cummings, see as crucial to driving the UK’s future economy. In the aftermath of the Budget, much was written about how successful the agency might be at imitating the US’s highly successful Darpa programme, which has been credited with underwriting its computer revolution in the 1960s and 70s. (And, thus, America’s current dominance in information technology.)


The brainchild of the British prime minister’s former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings and modelled on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Darpa, the organisation will focus partly on genomic research. Genome technology is becoming an increasingly important part of military research with potential for human genome editing to create supersoldiers. In 2019, Darpa announced that it wishes to explore genetically editing soldiers. It has also invested over US$65 million (£45 million) to improve the safety and accuracy of genome-editing technologies. These include the famous Nobel prize-winning Crispr-Cas molecular scissor – a tool that can edit DNA by cutting and pasting sections of it.



Royal Navy technology accelerator gets £75m MOD boost

The UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) has announced a £75m investment to develop innovative technology for the Royal Navy, including robots and autonomous mine-hunters. The funding will be used to develop two new autonomous mine-hunter vessels with sonars. These vessels will enable remote mine-hunting at higher range, speed and accuracy in the Gulf.


A portion of the funding will also be allocated to the creation of a new joint military and industry hi-tech accelerator, NavyX, focussed on autonomy and lethality. The objective of the Royal Navy technology accelerator will be to streamline the process of acquisition of the latest technology and create a new facility to test, assess and purchase new equipment. The proposed facility will see industry, military and academia working in collaboration.


UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “Today’s announcement will not only allow the Royal Navy to rapidly harness dynamic, cutting-edge equipment at speed, but also ensure they can outpace adversaries both on the water and the sea floor.


“Technology is moving faster than ever, and with the defence landscape rapidly evolving, we must ensure our armed forces are continually pushing the boundaries at the forefront of this change.” The deployment of autonomous mine-hunters will enhance the Royal Navy’s capability to combat existing and evolving underwater threats and offer more protection to sailors.


First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Philip Jones said: “From the invention of the steam catapult and aircraft carrier, to the first use of sonars and torpedoes, the Royal Navy has a strong pedigree in the development, testing, and introduction of new technologies that help us keep our country safe. “Across the generations, our willingness to embrace innovation has kept us one step ahead of our adversaries, and to assure our continued success on operations into the future it is vital that the Royal Navy continues to be equipped with the latest cutting-edge capabilities we need to address the rapidly evolving challenges that pose a threat to our national interests around the globe.”


The funding was announced during Williamson’s visit to QinetiQ’s Portsdown Technology Park. He witnessed demonstrations of autonomous vehicles, vessels, and drones, including hoverbikes, wave gliders and Gravity’s ‘Ironman’ flying suit.  In March 2019, the UK MOD awarded £2.5m to a consortium led by Blue Bear Systems Research to develop drone swarm technology for use in battlefield operations.


UK Ministry of Defence Leads Innovation Autonomy Challenge

The UK Ministry of Defence (MOD)  announced in 2018  that it is partnering with the Department for International Development (DFID) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to turn cutting-edge designs for drones and robots into reality. Experts from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) are leading the partnership as part of MOD’s Innovation Autonomy Challenge, with joint competition funding from MOD, DFID and UKRI being placed through the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA).


This is the second phase of the competition, which will build prototypes for initial demonstration, and is worth a total of £3.8m over the next 12 months. Four of the five successful organisations are British-led, with a wide range of sub-contractors from small and medium enterprises, industry and academia. Winning systems concepts include autonomous hoverbikes, powered paragliders and other unmanned air vehicles, operating alongside self-driving ground vehicles to deliver supplies across difficult, and potentially contested, terrain.


Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “Defence makes an unrivalled investment in science and technology, creating thousands of highly-skilled jobs and brilliant career opportunities, generating billions for the UK economy. This Autonomous Last Mile competition has seen next-generation concepts from unmanned hoverbikes to powered paragliders come to life.”


Phase 2 has selected 5 bids, led by Animal Dynamics Ltd, Barnard Microsystems Ltd, Fleetonomy, HORIBA MIRA, and Qinetiq, to build prototypes systems for initial testing and evaluation this autumn:

  • Animal Dynamics with a system featuring novel autonomous powered paragliders;
  • Barnard Microsystems Ltd with Cranfield University developing a vertical take-off and landing unmanned air vehicle-based system;
  • Fleetonomy with Thales, Thesigers, Avartek & Callen Lenz to provide a system to demonstrate autonomous networked unmanned deliveries in the urban and other environments;
  • Horiba Mira with Frazer Nash Consultancy featuring a highly autonomous all-terrain unmanned ground vehicle using artificial intelligence to provide GPS-denied navigation, advanced terrain perception and object recognition;
  • QinetiQ with Hull University, Malloy Aeronautics, MilRem Robotics, Roke Manor Research, Oxbotica, IQHQ Ltd & Aberystwyth University offering an integrated highly-automated logistic system, featuring autonomous hoverbikes and advanced unmanned ground vehicles.


UK launches competition for urban-optimised military drone system in Sep 2020

The tender was launched in Sep 2020 by the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) and Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S). It seeks to identify and leverage innovative solutions that will help military drone operators address various challenges while using unmanned air systems (UAS) for operations in urban environments. The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) aims to overcome three challenges with the initiative. The first challenge involves developing an optimised UAS for urban environments, while the second encompasses developing a human-controlled lethal payload that can integrate with the urban-optimised UAS. The third challenge involves demonstrating a full UAS with an integrated payload, including separate elements of the first two challenges.


In a statement, the UK MoD said: “We are looking for ideas that reduce the mental strain on operators and to improve performance, but solutions must ensure that they remain under full human control at all times.” It is expected that the new capabilities will help military forces to stop using service personnel and military dogs in dangerous urban warfare situations minimising risks to life.


UK DASA launches competition to enhance explosive and weapon detection in Aug 2020

The UK Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) has launched a £2.8m ($3.6m) competition seeking advanced technological solutions for enhanced detection of explosives, weapons and illicit drugs. The cross-governmental programme, called Innovative Research Call (IRC) 2020 for Explosives and Weapons Detection, has sought proposals from industry and academia for the screening of people and/or their possessions, goods, vehicles, and buildings and areas.DASA delivery manager Laurence Bickerton said: “We are looking for the best innovations to keep our communities safe from the deadliest threats we face.


“To tackle this challenge, we are looking for new concepts and advances in current technology, and we are appealing far and wide for the best ideas and innovative solutions to help create a safer future for all.” The IRC competition is run on behalf of government departments and law enforcement agencies, including Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI), Department for Transport (DfT), Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), Home Office’s Office of Security and Counter Terrorism (OSCT), Metropolitan Police Service, US Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate, and UK Border Force.


UK MOD £10 million Innovation Challenge

UK MOD launched the £10 million Innovation Challenge in March 2015 with the aim of encouraging the development of innovative defence products. The MOD’s Centre for Defence Enterprise (CDE) in partnership with the DGP’s UK Defence Solutions Centre (UKDSC) ran the series of 4 SBRI themed competitions against which industry and academia for their innovative ideas and bid for funding.


Richard Brooks, Delivery Director at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), said: “UKDSC, working closely with Dstl, has identified themes where significant challenges exist for defence and there are attractive future export markets. The competitions are looking for innovative proof-of-concept research proposals for solutions against these themes.”


The first 2 themed competitions are on the subjects of training and persistent surveillance. The MOD announced the theme of autonomy and big data for its next DGP Innovation Challenge, also compliant with SBRI. This competition, worth a total of at least £4 million over 2 phases.


Autonomy and Big data

“The amount of data both required and produced by defence systems and processes is rapidly increasing and becoming more difficult to manage. In a time when military manpower is limited, manual processing of data is too time consuming. The use of autonomous systems and processes to make sense of data to support decision making could increase efficiency and reduce the risk and cost of operations,” says UK govt website.


“Big data is a data set that is too large and complex to manage and process with standard methods or tools. This could be due to high data volume (amount of data), velocity (speed of data in and out) or variety (range of data types and sources). These issues apply equally for defence and commercial data.” Given the nature of the military decisions that have to be made, it’s of extreme importance that we understand the quality of the data and the value each piece of data brings.


UK MOD technical challenges

UK MOD identified four technology challenges for this theme

Challenge 1: acquiring data for autonomous vehicles

“The majority of autonomous systems being developed, particularly in civil applications, rely on comprehensive, detailed terrain and environmental data, known as ‘prior knowledge’. Locally sensed data is added to this for their navigation and safe operations.”

MOD will need to use autonomous vehicles in complex environments in the air, on land and at sea where there’s limited or out-of-date prior knowledge about the terrain or environment. The autonomous vehicles will have on-board sensors but these may be limited by the need to be covert or to operate in harsh electro-magnetic environments, eg GPS degraded or denied environments.

We’re looking for novel data collection methods (sensors, algorithms etc), which take in existing data from various sources, including potentially new sources or existing sources used in a novel way. We’re also looking for methods for gathering data from on board the autonomous vehicle, so that the data can be combined to allow effective and safe operation.


In challenge 1, we’re looking for methods of:

acquiring prior knowledge of environments to allow effective and safe operation of autonomous air, land, or sea vehicles processing data sets to simplify or enable their use by autonomous vehicles exploiting prior knowledge to achieve greater levels of autonomy. You should consider that the technologies may need to operate in complex and hostile environments, be used remotely or covertly, and at short notice.

We’re interested in technologies that allow a vehicle to: automatically select the best route in a complex and rapidly changing environment, eg due to the weather or battlespace activity, use passive rather than active sensors, operate without GPS and operate over extended ranges eg beyond visual line of sight communications.

We’re not looking for in challenge 1: platform technologies, eg airframes, propulsion; architectures; intent or threat profiling.


Challenge 2: sourcing big data in difficult environments

In any deployed task group, the command platform can be overwhelmed by data from various sources.

“When operating in a remote, isolated location in a hostile environment there’s a need to establish a high degree of confidence in the data received. Data for tactical decision making will need to be rapidly brought together from various sources and collection methods. Resources to address this, in terms of both computing and manpower, can be limited. Bandwidth limitations will affect the speed of accessing external data and there’ll be occasional loss of access to individual external data sources. Firewalls and other security restrictions may also limit data and information access.

Without relying on well-connected data centres, MOD will need to check data collected in a tactical environment against all the information available. This will be challenging due to the volume, variety and speed of the data, and the fact that it may not be known what data exists.

MOD will need to assign priorities and understand what’s critical to the mission. Given the diversity and sensitivity of some of the data sources, the security and integrity of the wider data sources will need to be maintained.

In challenge 2, we’re looking for proposals for technologies that allow storage, indexing, search, discovery, retrieval and visualisation of data collected that don’t rely on well-connected data centres.

Proposals should also consider the authentication and security aspects of the data queries.


Challenge 3: validating sources of big data

Data sources will include known, trusted and classified sources as well as ambiguous or unknown, and unvalidated open sources. The combination of this data to support decision making will require a confidence level or reliability score to be assigned.

This will also allow examination for audit, legal or ethical reasons, especially in circumstances where the rules of engagement for data collection and use may be dynamic. This requirement ranges from source validation, fact checking and confirmation, copyright assurance, through to protection of personal data and reputation management.

In challenge 3, we want proposals to develop novel tools, techniques, and procedures that combine data resources with metadata, or similar ‘tag’ constructs. These should clearly and concisely frame the way in which the underlying data may be considered, placed into context, and used. Proposals should consider the methods that the analytical, and other, components will use to interact with, and account for, the tagged data.


Challenge 4: managing and visualising big data

New persistent surveillance systems will produce significant volumes of data, likely to overwhelm the specialist surveillance analysts processing the data at intelligence centres. The problem is even more difficult when there are multiple, diverse sensor feeds from the same or multiple persistent surveillance systems. Many information types can be involved, ranging from traditional intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) sources through to open-source and social media.

This can be solved by 2 approaches: near real-time processing close to or at the sensor, and post-processing analysis close to, or at, the analyst.

In challenge 4, we want proposals that develop novel tools, techniques and procedures to autonomously process, infer meaning from, and distribute information so that analysts aren’t overwhelmed by the data.

Given the complexity of this challenge, and the requirement for short-duration phase-1 proposals in this competition, we expect proposals to focus on component technologies or processes rather than address the challenge as a whole.


Winners of first round

The winners of the first round of these competitions were announced in September 2015

  1. Atlas ElektroniK UK Limited: Topological data analysis for robust autonomous situational awareness
  2. Autonomous Devices Limited: A real-time interactive query language for extracting intelligence from big data
  3. BMT Defence Services: Validating sources of big data – Learning to trust the crowd
  4. CountingLab Ltd: Trustworthiness of information from big data sets: An autonomous approach based on the analysis of the messages’ metadata, linguistic and spread through social networks
  5. Createc Live Maps: Air
  6. Cubica Technology Ltd: Automatic verification and fusion of open-source intelligence for regional situational awareness
  7. Exa Informatics: Knowledge based autonomous big data validation
  8. HORIBA MIRA: Real time UGV localisation using geo-referencing derived from deep learning applied to disparate data sets
  9. Mass Consultants Ltd: TimeSets: Timeline visualisation for provenance-based big data sensemaking
  10. Massive Analytic Limited: Artificial precognition and decision-making support for persistent surveillance-based tactical support
  11. Oxbotica Ltd: Experience based localisation – feasibility study
  12. Polaris Consulting Ltd: A risk based meta heuristic model for real time route optimisation in autonomous surface vehicles
  13. Polaris Consulting Ltd: Maritime autonomous navigation and mission effectiveness in GPS limited environments
  14. Polaris Consulting Ltd: Applying a dominant rough set approach to improve intelligence data and processing and enhance situational awareness
  15. Qinetiq Extracting visual navigation data from open source imagery
  16. Roke Manor Research: Reducing the workload of an Intelligence Analyst by automatically determining confidence in intelligence from the provenance of underlying data
  17. Selex ES: Linguistic summarisation of data to reduce data deluge
  18. SimCentric Limited: VSALT: visual search and autonomous linkage tool
  19. Stormcharge Ltd: Command and control of land and airborne autonomous vehicle groups in changing environment
  20. Swarm Systems Ltd: Fusion and synthetic environment for autonomous systems (FUSE)
  21. The University of Sheffield: Hypothesis generation and visualisation from big data
  22. The University of Sheffield: Bloom Filters for localised intelligence
  23. TRW Limited Dynamic generation of 3D perspective using array of descending cameras
  24. Vectis Environmental Consulting Team LLP: Position acquisition through statistical environmental recognition (PASER)


References and Resources also include:




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