Thales UK is involved in every cutting-edge development underpinning society’s digital transformation, from artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles, to predictive maintenance, quantum computing, and everything in-between. Jonny Williamson sat down with Chief Technology Officer, Paul Gosling, to hear what the future holds.
Whether in the air, on the ground, at the bottom of the ocean or orbiting the earth, chances are you’ll be within touching distance of a system engineered by Thales Group.
An enduring member of the Top 100 Global Innovators list, the global technology group has an unwavering commitment to innovating and bringing new inventions to market. The UK operation is the group’s largest subsidiary outside of France, with 6,500 employees working across nine key sites and 85% of suppliers being UK-based.
What technology use cases within Thales UK have caught your attention recently?
There are so many exciting developments. Our Maritime Autonomy Centre at Turnchapel Wharf, Plymouth, is deeply involved in cutting-edge autonomous maritime systems and deploying underwater drones from such vessels to detect mines.
We’ve also been involved in a project called ‘MIMRee’ – Multi-Platform Maintenance, Inspection and Repair in extreme environments.
This Innovate UK-funded project combines elements of our maritime autonomy technology with high resolution, high frame rate cameras used in the defence industry to support remote inspection of offshore wind farms.
An unmanned boat orbits around the wind farm with a crew of drones and robot blade crawlers. Working as a unit, drones airlift inspect-and-repair robots onto the turbine blades where they crawl the surface and use hyper-spectral imaging to detect structural faults.
Thanks to machine learning, the robots decide if repairs are needed and carry them out using bespoke robotic arms.
This is a great example of how innovations created for the defence sector can be applied to civil engineering, while also benefitting another important focus for Thales – green energy and the environment.
Part of your role involves predicting what’s coming around the corner. What do you see being the big tech advances over the next half-decade?
Predicting the future is always tricky. I remember reading science magazines as a child in the 1960s and they were filled with stories of flying cars and living on the moon.
What they didn’t predict, which has arguably had a greater global impact, was the societal shift brought about by the introduction of personal computers, the internet and mobile devices. The principle of a human-in-the-loop in complex systems is going to become increasingly difficult to manage.
Assuming a human is the last line of defence only works if the human is capable of reacting in time and remains alert. Both of which are difficult when the machine is doing most of the work and the human hasn’t been paying attention. The challenge of incorporating safety and security within increasingly complex connected and autonomous technology will only be cracked through greater collaboration between technologists and regulators.
From a manufacturing perspective, the ability to have a ‘digital twin’ to test and validate a system long before prototyping is already starting to change the way we can evolve systems more rapidly and successfully.
Things get really exciting when you start using AI to optimise that digital twin. We see the combination of additive layer manufacturing (ALM) and smart materials enabling us to create structures and devices with capabilities we would struggle to build by conventional means.
The rapid evolution of digital technologies and the vast quantities of data that systems produce, coupled with increased 5G connectivity and artificial intelligence, also creates numerous opportunities to support developments in predictive maintenance, for example. With products being connected and reporting back information, that data can be analysed to identify patterns that suggest a failure may occur.
That enables maintenance to be undertaken in a much more controlled manner. A good example of that is TIRIS, the smart maintenance platform we’ve developed to identify points failure on the rail network.
Quantum is a field that interests you greatly. Why?
I’m a physicist by education and background, and physicists are fascinated by the subject. With quantum sensing, for example, you’re not talking about the traditional factor of two improvement. You’re talking about orders of magnitude 10,000-times better.
The size of the shift is enormous. Communications, processing, sensing, security, there are so many potential exploitation paths for quantum that even if we can’t transition them all out of the lab, many will make the leap.
The challenge lies in the industrialisation of quantum. A lot of nations are investing in the technology and the UK is undertaking world-leading research in the field. Our great academic institutions often lead the way, but we don’t follow that up in terms of fully exploiting advancements.
If the UK can understand how to industrialise the technology, I genuinely believe we are on the cusp of a ‘quantum revolution’ that will be as significant as the Industrial Revolution.
Indeed, the government’s new Innovation Strategy aims to better maximise the UK’s research and development systems. What’s your response to the plan?
Recognising the importance of R&D and the UK ecosystem that has driven numerous world-leading innovations is very positive. As is the desire to increase funding, to incentivise companies to invest in R&D, to support SMEs and to leverage our first-rate universities.
Getting government agencies to support the introduction of new technology is a welcome focus. As is a government regulator willing to work with industries seeking to introduce new technologies where existing regulations would need to be adapted.
The one thing I continue to worry about is skills. Despite all the efforts to date, we still see a lack of diversity across the industrial workforce, as well as a critical shortage of skilled workers in many key areas. It’s not something that can be fixed quickly. But it starts with doing more to attract young people into science, technology, engineering and maths subjects, and making that career path into industry more attractive.
Given the speed of technological change, how do you design platforms that are flexible enough to exploit new advancements?
Thales manufactures military systems that span decades as well as civil systems with much shorter lifespans. Software and digital technologies are continuously evolving, so we need to deal with both short and long duration products and look for those technology elements that serve our multiple business entities.
To future-proof a system isn’t easy but having a reference architecture for the product and where possible adhering to standards are important. Building in the capability to evolve the system through software or targeted modular upgrades is the key.
Look how Tesla provides continuous upgrades to their cars through enhanced software, for example. The sonar system I worked on in the early 1990s is still in service today and is far more capable because of upgrades made over the years.
What strategy does Thales employ to mature new technologies quickly so they start delivering benefits?
Most businesses recognise that good ideas can struggle to navigate the ‘valley of death’, that point in their evolution where investment and market pull are needed to make them successful. When our research reaches Technology Readiness Level 3, we have a review and decide if it’s showing enough promise to move to the next stage.
We review again when we hit TRL 5. It’s key at both these review stages to be realistic, not every idea is going to be successful so managing the innovation funnel effectively is important. Not getting a technology through a review gate should never be seen as a failure. The failure is to not explore a good idea at all.
You’ve been with Thales for 30-plus years. What is the project you’re most proud of?
I started with Thales having done some work previously on radar system and I spent most of my first 20 years working on some of the most advanced navel sensing systems in the world.
A large number of colleagues and I were involved in providing the ‘eyes and ears’ for the Royal Navy’s Carrier Strike Group 21. I can track some of the gestation of CSG21 capability back to the day I started with Thales in 1990.
That’s certainly a highlight. As was being aboard frigates and seeing the positive impact our equipment has made to the crew. I’m also proud to be part of a team helping to grow UK engineering talent, and I’ve seen several graduate engineers join Thales and progress over the years to senior roles.
What does the future hold for Thales UK?
The businesses that innovate, both in terms of their products and services and how they operate, will be the ones that drive long-term economic growth and future prosperity. Thales recognises that investment in R&D creates a pipeline of opportunity and capability.
To that end, the group undertakes more than €1bn of self-funded R&D a year. We are continuously adapting and we’re already working on next generation sensors that will offer a number of performance gains.
There’s also a lot more we do now in terms of digital offerings. Part of our portfolio now provides passports, chip and PIN machines, and driving licenses. That allows us to bring our security and trust capabilities from the defence sector into the civil world.
Being able to explore and pull through synergies such as these I find very exciting. For me, the key challenge is winning the war on talent. We have a fantastic opportunity to develop and grow the next generation of engineers. We must do everything we can to get that right and keep the pipeline sustainable for the future.
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