The “new defence”: Agile SMEs delivering new capabilities

What began as a collaboration to develop an unmanned ground system has evolved into a joint venture that showcases the way that defence contracting is changing. Manufacturers’ Monthly speaks with Backplane Systems Technology and Praesidium Global.

Since the release of the 2016 Defence White Paper, and its commitment to spending $195 billion on new equipment for the Australian Defence Forces, businesses large and small across Australia have been impacted by the new policy framework. One company, Praesidium Global, would simply not have existed without this new funding and policy environment.

Although David Baird, CEO of Praesidium, made the decision to develop an unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) in 2015, the changes that were part of the 2016 Defence White Paper made it possible for him to pursue the development of the project in Australia.

“In 2015, the Australian Defence Force did not have a capability requirement that was directly linked to an unmanned ground system. That didn’t arise until February 2016 when the government introduced the new 2016 Defence White Paper. At that point we saw some changes within the terminology that was being used within the capability document.”

Previously, the only reference to unmanned systems were unmanned aerial systems. However, the 2016 Defence White Paper stipulated the need to confront the emergence of unmanned systems, not only in the air, but on the ground and in the water.

This change in terminology allowed Baird to realise the vision he had for a UGV for the Australian Army.

Getting from an idea, to the production of an entirely new vehicle and the systems to support it, was the next step. Baird saw his opportunity in 2016 at the Australian Army’s innovation day, which was structured under the theme “manned and unmanned teaming for the soldier”.

“Troops working dismounted with unmanned systems was the key focus of the innovation day,” recalled Baird. “Praesidium was down-selected from 150 companies to 25 companies, and then in mid- October 2016, we demonstrated at the Australian Defence Force Academy with the then head of modernisation, Major General Fergus McLachlan.”

Having demonstrated the concept of a UGV to the Australian Army, Baird and his team had to negotiate a new operating environment as a supplier to the Australian Defence Forces. Rather than fulfilling a specific contract for an identified need, what Praesidium had developed was new, and now the company began to work with Defence to determine the operational capacity of the system.

“One of the problems with the UGV is that there are no standard operating procedures for unmanned systems in the Australian Defence Forces in the ground context,” said Baird. “From our first contract, it’s been a collaboration between Praesidium and Defence to develop the Army’s understanding of how they will apply unmanned ground systems.”

The Australian Army adopted a learn-by-doing approach to develop their Robotic and Autonomous Systems (RAS) strategy. Thus, Praesidium took on the “spiral model” of development. More commonly used in software development, where the final outcome is not known at the outset, Praesidium adopted the method for the development of the software and hardware components of the UGV. Although this has created challenges, for Praesidium, this method is a rewarding process.

“Army is taking an approach of ‘learn by doing’,” described Baird. “Normally in the development process, the troops – the end users – very rarely have the opportunity to input into a program at such an early stage in the lifecycle of a product. Now, we have very early engagement with the end user at all levels and different regiments. The Defence Science and Technology Group is taking the metrics out of those tests and evaluations that are happening with the end users to really define their scope and requirements for an unmanned system going forward.”

A testing process
The product that Praesidium developed was M.A.P.S. (Mission Adaptable Platform System), a medium-sized, semi-autonomous unmanned platform. To driving the system internally, a highly durable and reliable computer system was required, which was delivered by industrial computer integrator, Backplane Systems Technology.

“Right from the first contract, we used Backplane,” said Baird. “Their computer hardware, because of their experience in the mining sector in particular, that harsh environment, was really important.”

Throughout the iterative design process, Backplane has been involved in developing the solution that Praesidium could offer the Australian Army, leading to a closer partnership between the two companies.

“That relationship has been continuously developed. Backplane are really responsive when we give them a problem, which we’re really glad about. Their team responds to it and deals with it accordingly,” said Baird.

Not only was Backplane’s previous experience in the mining sector an important reference point, but work with other emergency services was key to their hardware being adopted by Praesidium. With a mandate to deliver value for money to the Australian Army, Praesidium needed an off-the-shelf solution that met their high standards.

“One of our remits to the Army was to reduce total cost of ownership. We wanted something that was readily available, that already had a tested track record. And the mining industry is one of the toughest environments, akin to the environments we’ll be operating in,” said Baird.

Being delivered to the end user, the soldier, right from the start of the design process meant that any potential pain points in the hardware would be discovered immediately, and any difference from advertised standards would impact both the capability and reliability of the project, as Baird highlighted.

“Experience has shown us that most things do not actually survive real world tests, for all the vibration testing and everything else that’s done in workshops, the real test is when we put it in the hands of soldiers because they will find points of failure in any product.”

The rugged solution
Not that this troubled Backplane. According to Kristy Comb, CEO of Backplane, the tests that their fanless, rugged PC systems had gone through in other sectors assured them that the systems would stand up to the tests of the Australian Army.

“We were confident because of where the products had already been. We’d known they’d been on mine sites in the Pilbara, in 50oC heat. We had faith in the product and knew that it would survive in that situation,” said Comb.

Having developed rugged PC systems for the mining industry, Comb is well aware of the exacting conditions that industrial PCs in Australia must be developed to withstand, which makes them an appropriate component for systems such as Praesidium’s M.A.P.S.

“In Australia, we’re looking at 60 to 70oC,” said Comb. “If the PC is the Pilbara, in a truck cabin on a 50oC degree day, the user is going to get in the truck, the airconditioning is going to take some time to start up, and they need to turn it on and have it go. The ambient temperature is 50oC, so the PC in the cabin is going to be hotter than that. It needs to be able to start at 60 to 70oC. A desktop PC, as a comparison, is only rated to about 30 to 35oC.”

The PCs must also withstand constant vibration and be fanless, to ensure no dust or grit can get inside the system.

With these technical benchmarks now met, for both Backplane and Praesidium, the next challenge was to ensure that their companies were prepared for the specific requirements of working as a defence supplier. Although Comb’s staff at Backplane had already been subjected to a higher level of rigour as part of delivering products to emergency services, Baird pointed out that supplying to defence added another layer of security.

“All the staff have to have a police check – a standard part of the business – but within the defence space we have to prepare for everything, cyber security, security of IP, and information,” said Baird. “It’s not just about our information, it’s about our clients information.”

Cyber security is a constant threat to all business but operating in the defence space requires a higher level of threat management. Baird cited being probed by outside scammers and hackers as a constant threat that Praesidium must now be aware of.

“It can seem anal retentive, but as we’ve seen in recent years, companies like ourselves, that were part of defence programs, that were hacked through a simple administrator password and all the intellectual property that they were holding if were compromised, so we have to be mindful of that,” said Baird.

Supplying as an SME
The particular issues that confront Baird are part of the specific nature of being an SME contracting to defence, something that both Praesidium and Backplane will become even more familiar with as they launch their new joint venture, Disruptive Defence Technologies.

Prior to the changes in 2016, Defence contracting was the domain of the large multinational defence contractors. With the explicit aim of supporting local Australian industry, in the past three years, more SMEs are now directly working with defence, rather than supplying through the larger multinationals.

“Typically SMEs form part of the global supply chain via the large defence contractors,” said Baird. “With the push by government to create Sovereign capability that’s all changed now. New opportunities have arisen for innovative SMEs to enter the defence space through the traditional route of supply chain, or in dealing direct with defence particularly in the innovation spaces. In turn this has created new challenges for defence as well, because defence working with SMEs directly, it’s having to manage risks within SMEs, which is completely different as well.”

Working with SMEs also presents opportunities for dynamic and flexible responses to emerging needs for the defence forces, something which would have taken longer and been more expensive under previous arrangements, said Baird.

“We have some phenomenal technology in Australia that’s being developed by SMEs because they’re not bound by the restrictions of large enterprises; they’re constantly looking to the latest technology and constantly evaluating.

“This is something that defence realised in conflicts, particularly in Afghanistan and Syria where ISIS was employing modern technology such as off-the-shelf commercial drones. It would buy them off the shelf and deploy them immediately against our troops.”

The resiliency of Australian manufacturing SMEs makes these enterprises a great potential source of technology and innovation for the Australian Defence Forces, however without the institutional resources of larger corporations, they also require support.

Baird sees this in the likes of the Centre for Defence Industry Capability (CDIC).

“I often refer to it as the ‘new defence’, from 2016 with the creation of government departments like CDIC that are trying to support SMEs and businesses. We’ve benefited from the advice of CDIC and that’s something, as we move to this joint venture with Backplane, that we will be able to draw on as well,” said Baird.

Although still in the early stages, Disruptive Defence Technologies will take the software developed by Praesidium and the hardware provided by Backplane to develop new autonomous systems for the Australian Defence market as well as for export.

Building off the success of the M.A.P.S. platform, which is already being noticed by national militaries in the United Arab Emirates, Portugal, Indonesia, the UK, Saudi Arabia, and New Zealand, Baird and Comb will take their business model to another area of potential.

“You’re flexible in that you can move quickly,” said Comb. “David owns his company, I own mine, we can make a decision instantaneously, and we can look at what’s in front of us we can make approvals and decisions and move forward.”

Having only recently returned from the Defence Security and Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair, held in mid-September, 2019, both Comb and Baird see a future for Australian innovation in agile SMEs.

“It’s a really exciting time,” said Baird. “Now, through government spending and supporting SMEs in particular– small, garage located workshops – if you look at some of the things they’re building, it is absolutely phenomenal.”