Rob Solly, Division Head, Defence and Security Analysis, tells us how the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) signals a bright future for SME research in defence and security
As the science inside UK defence and security, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) is pioneering innovation and change to help keep the UK and its citizens safe from harm. Dstl delivers existing and future science and technology (S&T) needs for customers across defence, security and government departments. Our expertise spans the traditional domains – land, air and sea including underwater – and extends to space and cyber.
Robots and autonomous systems
Defence is not only about platforms, such as tanks, ships or planes, or weapons, but embraces many challenges which are common to society. For example, what are the beneﬁts and challenges posed by robots and autonomous systems and how can these be harnessed? We are researching autonomous systems in the land, sea and air domains, which might act as the eyes and ears of our forces but could also be used to deliver food and medical aid through hostile or hard to reach territory. By using autonomous systems, we increase the distance between personnel and the source of danger, thereby increasing protection and potentially saving life.
We are looking at increasing and integrating green energy into equipment, such as the use of smaller but powerful batteries to reduce reliance on carbon fuels. And solar power to provide greater endurance for Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles to provide continuous observation, not just for the military but above disaster areas such as ﬂoods or forest ﬁres.
The human body is very precious and Dstl is researching numerous ways to increase protection. This includes physical protection from oﬀensive weapons, but also looking at reducing the burden through devising lighter and more eﬃcient load distribution. We’re working with sleep experts to help manage the eﬀects of fatigue, which will also beneﬁt others in industries, such as transport, with irregular work-rest schedules.
Dstl: World-class expertise
Dstl has world-class expertise which delivers military and security advantage for the UK. The size and complexity of our projects mean that we work very closely with industry, academia and our international partners with whom we spend more than 40% of our research budget. It is anticipated that over the next three years Dstl will spend between £800 million and £900 million on external research.
The breadth of our workload means we seek partnerships not just with scientists and engineers but a complete array of specialists, from analysts and computer modellers to materials and electromagnetic experts. Researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs seeking to overcome challenges in manufacturing, pharmaceuticals or computer science might be surprised to see that their skills and expertise would be equally applicable to defence and security.
Along with the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the rest of the UK Government, Dstl advocates competition, both in our direct contract opportunities and throughout the supply chain. Opportunities, therefore, exist for suppliers of all sizes, from large established defence contractors through to innovative smaller businesses. Direct and other supply chain opportunities can be found via Direct Contracts Online (the DCO).
SME research in defence and security Dstl’s dynamic marketplace, RCloud, enables organisations to register with Dstl for opportunities at any point, providing SMEs with the opportunity to identify the capabilities they wish to bid against. Approximately 10% of all Dstl direct spend ﬂows through Rcloud annually and 57% of current RCloud suppliers are SMEs.
The new RCloud (version 4) was launched in November 2020 and is now open to opportunities across the whole of MOD. The agreement is designed to span the full range of S&T disciplines that underpin the research activities of MOD, whilst also reﬂecting capability areas of increased or growing priority, meaning it provides an eﬀective platform for smaller, specialist organisations to engage with MOD research projects. In order to become an R-Cloud supplier, you will need to complete an application via the R-Cloud portal.
As well as contracting directly with Dstl, there are signiﬁcant opportunities for SMEs to work with Dstl via the supply chain, for example, through Dstl’s Framework Contracts where Prime Contractors are tasked by Dstl to develop the supplier Ecosystem (Community of Interest), actively seeking out innovative SMEs.
In 2019, Dstl highlighted its commitment to working with a wide range of innovative SMEs and the MOD set an ambitious target that 25% of its procurement spend will go to SMEs by 2021. Dstl announced a substantial increase in spend with SMEs in 2019-20, from £72.6 million to £86.1 million, meaning that over 27% of Dstl’s external spend on S&T went to SMEs, either directly or via a prime supplier.
Dstl has developed “SME Searchlight”, an engagement programme speciﬁcally targeted at SMEs. SME Searchlight was started as a programme of activity aiming to engage SMEs and “non-traditional” defence suppliers. The increase in demand for new research opportunities extends across Dstl, but the current focus is on platform systems – any science and technology to help us strive towards the generation after next of combat vehicles, ships and aircraft.
Air systems and policing
During 2020, Dstl hosted a series of well-attended webinars highlighting future opportunities for both existing and non-traditional defence suppliers that covered air systems and policing. The policing webinar generated 132 proposals of all levels of maturity (from fundamental science to applying mature technology in a new way) into DASA, the Defence and Security Accelerator, which fast tracks innovation in defence. The webinars will continue into 2021 with the plans for Land Systems in January followed by Operational Sovereignty later in the year.
Working with Dstl and defence has many beneﬁts, especially for SMEs. Rapid enrolment onto trials, diverse opportunities, prompt payment, collaborative working including the opportunity to build partnerships with prime contractors and participate in framework contracts, and usually retention of Intellectual Property rights. Companies don’t need defence experience to work in the defence industry. We look forward to welcoming new businesses onto our supply chain to continue to develop and enhance the UK’s capability.
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