Tech startup, JAR Aerospace, aims to redefine the Australian aerospace industry. Tara Hamid caught up with Lochie Burke, co-founder and chief marketing officer of JAR Aerospace, to talk about the company’s ambitions in the aerospace industry and its research and educational activities.
“JAR Aerospace is a skyrocketing startup with aims of simultaneously redefining the Australian aerospace industry and becoming a major figure in the country’s aerospace engineering future.”
That’s how JAR Aerospace defines itself in the “About” section of its website, and going by what the company has achieved in less than two years, the ambition does not seem far-fetched.
It all started out with a group of four drone enthusiasts, Jack Cullen, Sam Lewinson, Lochie Burke and Daniel Moscaritolo, tinkering with some basic drone prototypes in the garage of Cullen’s house on the Central Coast in New South Wales.
After developing some early stage concepts of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) using components that they had purchased off the market and pitching their early MVPs (minimum viable products), the team secured some investments which allowed them to scale development at JAR Aerospace throughout 2017.
Over the past 20 months since its inception, the company has grown to a 29-member team operating in two locations – a research precinct at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and a facility in south Sydney – developing customisable UASs for various commercial applications, with a core focus on the defence industry.
In January 2018, the company won a $275,000 Defence Innovation Hub contract from the Australian Army to develop a hybrid vertical take-off and landing fixed wing unmanned aerial system that will incorporate target tracking, encryption and acoustic sensing and analysis at an extended range.
Going to space
JAR Aerospace’s ambitions do not end with drones. The company’s ultimate goal is to
use the knowledge and expertise gained from its UAS development operations to play a key role in the country’s budding space industry, developing small rockets for low-earth orbit operations. The company plans to reach this stage within the next five years.
From a very early stage, JAR Aerospace realised that to achieve its ambitious goals, it would need manpower. But, as it turned out, finding people who shared the same enthusiasm as the founding members was not an easy task.
JAR Aerospace’s solution to the issue was two fold: the first was to engage with the university students in research and development to bringing them on-board with its industry initiatives.
JAR Aerospace has teamed up with the UNSW’s ARC Training Centre for Automated Manufacture of Advanced Composites (AMAC) on research and development. The majority of JAR Aerospace’s current team members were picked out from UNSW graduates.
The second solution that JAR Aerospace came up with was a quite unique one – and one that shows the company has a long-term vision to help grow the national aerospace sector.
To make sure the workforce pipeline remains full with aerospace enthusiasts in the years to come, JAR Aerospace has launched an educational branch – named JAR Education – to engage school students with drone science and to create excitement among the younger generation to take up science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) branches as they move to higher education.
JAR Education runs curriculum aligned student and teacher drone programs and workshops in schools, where students get the chance to build, code and fly drones, helping students build an understanding of UAS design, construction, safe operation, programing, systems integration and flight fundamentals.
MM: What is the nature of your collaborations with UNSW?
LB: We are currently operating from a space in the university’s innovation precinct, where our business development staff spend most of their time. It’s an opportunity for our business team to be in a close-knit community with other innovative groups and entrepreneurs. It also allows us to free-up more space in our Carringbah site so that we can focus strictly on rapid prototyping and manufacturing.
We are currently looking to sponsor UNSW’s AMAC centre as we see it as an opportunity
to give back to a university that has played such a pivotal role in our development. We would like to help the university, mainly by giving the students insight into the commercial aspects of our work and sharing with them the methods that we’ve implemented.
Working in a close collaboration with the university allows us to work with expert professors and to use their knowledge and experience. It will also ensure that, as we take on new contracts, we keep that tight-knit collaborative approach with one of Australia’s best research organisations.
Another benefit in working with universities in general is that there are so many incredible things going on within this organisation at any one time and you can certainly benefit from them, as one partnership opens the door to so many other partnerships.
Through our research collaborations with UNSW for example, we are now working towards new partnerships for our educational initiatives.
MM: How did the idea for JAR Education start?
LB: From the very beginning of launching the company, finding the right people to grow our team was a big challenge. Of course, there are plenty of talented people in Australia with great qualifications, but what we are looking for are people with an innovative and disruptive mind-set. So, we decided that to solve our problem to some extent, we should create a subsidiary educational company to drive young people into STEM areas.
Going by our own experience as students, had we had the opportunity to learn about UAS
or drones in a hands-on, project- based learning environment, it would have been a much more exciting experience than learning those things from out-dated, hand-me-down textbooks. So, we decide to make the learning process more exciting by allowing the students to build their own drones, to encourage innovation within students and to give them an industry insight. We have developed an educational offering using customised drones that the students can de-construct and build themselves.
It’s all about connecting education to industry and letting students discover that the systems that they see in commercial and defence operations aren’t as complex as they give them credit for, and unlocking the potential within each student when they realise that it is something that they can very well do.
Developing sovereign capabilities in aerospace cuts across so many other sectors,
from design and manufacturing to complex materials and data collection. We think the best way to ensure that we [as a nation] have capabilities there in the years to come, is to get people excited about it. Drones are an incredible vehicle for us to get young people excited about space.
MM: Is JAR Education a different division from JAR Aerospace’s commercial business?
LB: No. We are all directly involved with JAR Education across the business through our aerospace and education divisions. Even the engineers that spend most of their time on development of commercial products do keep an eye on the educational operations and participate in them when necessary.
We learn so much out of our educational efforts from the students doing our course. They are very bright young people and they come up with some incredible ideas that get circulated throughout our company. Sometimes, the students come up with questions that even our lead aerospace engineer may not have a ready answer for. We take a lot of pleasure out of that and it complements our aerospace efforts very well. Each and every member of the team is 100 per cent on-board with it and gains a lot out of it.
We are very fortunate that our three lines of business – commercial, educational and research – complement each other so well and they have all grown to a maturity level where they each function independently but we can take very valuable lessons out of each and apply them across the board.
MM: What industrial sectors is JAR Aerospace currently focusing on?
LB: Our market of choice, from the very beginning, was defence and high-end industrial and commercial systems.
When we worked out our priorities from a market potential point of view, it quickly became obvious for us that to truly innovate and to truly develop Australia’s sovereign capabilities, defence was a big part of our business. We wanted to develop systems for the defence as we knew this is the pinnacle of innovation, all across the world.
We also have a big focus on the medical delivery space. We think it’s a good opportunity to take the technology that we have developed into use cases that can not only save lives, but also save a lot of money in the transport of medical goods. This will be a huge step for our UAS delivery in every industry. I think it’s a great starting point. We are also looking to use the systems for asset management and high-end security and surveillance.
It’s our company’s goal and vision to be operating in space within five years and to be developing technologies for Australia’s space industry. Five years is a very short timeline, but we think that if we keep developing UASs the way we do, it’s feasible for us to move into development of small rockets for low-earth orbit operations.
MM: What is the state of progress in your commercial projects?
LB: We are flying and fully testing a string of different multi rotors, including systems with matched take-off weights or payloads ranging up to 70 kilograms, all the way down to small unmanned aerial systems (SUAS) that are under the 2.2 kg threshold that can be used for fast- appointment reconnaissance and surveillance.
They are all in different stages, with different technology readiness levels (TRLs). We have a system that we are developing for the army, which is in the prototyping phase at the moment. We’ve just completed Phase-I of our contract with the Defence Innovation Hub for our vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) fixed-wing system and we are looking at hopefully moving to Phase-II soon.
MM: Are you collaborating with any other manufacturers?
LB: We were very fortunate that the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC) was around, which gave us the opportunity to be identified and to collaborate with other groups with similar or higher capabilities to ours.
It’s been very beneficial for us because it allowed us to network with the manufacturing community around us – which as a start-up allowed us to focus on what we are good at (design and development and systems integration of different systems) and to take on the manufacturing capabilities of other organisations. Such collaborations have allowed us to get products out to the market at a rate that makes a system commercially viable to a large client base. It also gives validity to the commercial opportunities that arise, because it means that we can work in partnership with groups that have manufactured on scale before and be confident that we can make delivery deadlines that we set for ourselves or that clients and consumers set for us.