BATTLESPACE meets Mark Radford, CEO of Blighter Surveillance Systems, and a candidate for BATTLESPACE Businessman of the Year 2015.
Q: How did you get into the radar business?
I have worked in radar for my entire career. I was first sponsored by what was then GEC Marconi Radar and Defence Systems and is now a division of BAE Systems in Chelmsford. I started as a digital signal processing engineer using the earliest 68000 and Bit-slice processing technology. I have found my roots in radar technology to be invaluable for my role at Blighter Surveillance Systems, which is one of a number of companies that were born out of the Plextek Group, a leading British design house and technology innovator. Within Blighter, we pride ourselves on the quality of both the product range and of the advice we give our customers, even if that includes telling them that radar is not the solution they require.
Q: What led you to working for the Plextek Group?
I would love to say that I wanted to further my career in radar but actually, back in 2000, I was attracted to the new and exciting world of mobile telephones in which Plextek was one of the shining stars. I was enticed by both the company’s technological capabilities as well as its enlightened company ethos.
Q: How did Plextek build a radar division from scratch?
The simple answer is that it happened a bit at a time! By 2000, Plextek had already started to diversify its telecoms business to include the defence market, including radar technology. Additionally, it had over the years acquired engineering staff of who over 30% had at one time or another worked in one of the British radar companies. We had design skills for all parts of a radar system, from antennas through microwave electronics, digital signal processing and all the mechanical design aspects and for systems on land, sea or in the air.
Thanks to our technical experience in ground surveillance radars for the military market we recognised that we could develop something better and cheaper for the commercial market place as well as the existing defence market. Essentially, we could offer commercial market know-how for a classic military product. This also happened to be during the telecoms recession at the start of the Millennium which helped free up engineering staff to accelerate Blighter’s prototype design and launch at the DSEI defence and security exhibition in 2003.
Q: Was there a time when you thought of licensing the technology to a major defence company?
For a design consultancy developing such a product, yes, this was certainly an option that we explored. However, I don’t think that the major defence companies had the technological vision that the Blighter group clearly had. Our choice of technology and architecture was radical so I suspect that we were perceived as just a bit too risky for the average prime contractor.
Of course, time and the market has proven our choices to be correct. Blighter’s architecture remains unchanged yet we still offer industry leading performance at a highly competitive price point, with a steady stream of technological improvements along the way.
Q: What transformed Blighter from a small design group in the Plextek Group to a fully-fledged radar house in its own right?
Key to this was the market acceptance of the business benefits of solid state passive electronically scanned array (PESA) e-scan FMCW Doppler radars – providing an all-weather, wide-area, low false alarm rate (FAR) and high reliability persistent surveillance capability in commercial, government and defence markets.
It is Blighter’s inclusion of this PESA technology that delivers the key advantages of maintenance free operation and low cost of ownership to customers. PESA technology also ensures that there are minimal infrastructure requirements for power and networking when installing the e-scan Blighter radars along remote national borders and at critical infrastructure sites, such as airports, and in coastal defence or homeland security applications.
As sales increased – we have now sold over 400 radars to 20 different countries – Blighter Surveillance Systems was formed to give the radar and security/surveillance market a much clearer view of the radar products and the cameras, thermal imagers, trackers and software solutions that are increasingly part of the solution. This move also sought to avoid confusing the same market about the very different capabilities of Plextek Consulting.
Q: Is all your technology UK developed with UK Intellectual Property?
I am very proud to say that yes it is and with the vast majority of it developed within the four walls of our company. Our Blighter radar may be a compact size but the technical sophistication of the design probably exceeds that of many large scale military radar systems. Each sub-system e.g. e-scan modules, receiver, transmitter, waveform generator, DSP, power supply, case design, firmware, software etc. are complete complex sub-systems in their own right, and our company was able to design them all. This is an extreme design capability that few other companies are able to offer or acquire.
Q: Are all your radars built in the UK?
In addition to being designed in the UK, the entire radar is also manufactured in the UK. Of course, most of the electronic components are sourced from overseas, but we have partners that can provide the technical competence to assemble and test the radar modules and complete radar systems to provide the ultra-high reliability and performance through which we have earned our reputation.
Q: What was the first big break for Blighter?
Despite a number of useful sales through the mid-2000s, the transformational big-break for Blighter Surveillance Systems was the sale of Blighter radars to the British Army. They have been used continuously through the recent conflicts and have just undergone refurbishment in preparation for continued use in the future. We cannot overstate the significance of the British government buying British goods. While the British consider an open market to be fair play, the rest of the buying world doesn’t understand why a government would not selectively favour its own home grown goods. I consider the day that the British Army ordered Blighter radars to be our Big-Bang; it was absolutely influential in the procurement decisions of overseas customers across the defence, government, and civil markets.
Blighter radars are now deployed by armed forces in more than 10 countries including the USA, France, Czech Republic, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Egypt, United Kingdom and South Korea.
Q: Did you find it easy breaking into overseas markets and did the UK Government offer help?
Actually, we had far more enquiries from overseas markets so this was not really a problem. What, in hindsight, we were naïve about was the time to close some of the overseas contracts and the amount of effort required to assure those customers that our product is the right choice and that it really would work in their specific environments. To date, we have not found any parts of the world where Blighter will not work or cannot be used and this is because my team have had to support successful demonstrations and trials in the hottest, coldest, wettest and driest places around the world.
We have found the numerous UK government support groups to be hugely beneficial to helping our business. UKTI and the Defence & Security Organisation (DSO) provide the frontline support for export advice, exhibition support and overseas demonstrations.
Recently, we have found the government’s Bond Support Scheme to be extremely helpful for de-risking the contract bonds that banks might otherwise shy away from.
Q: Which is your largest contract to date?
Of course, it’s difficult to discuss this in detail, but I would point to our ongoing business in South Korea, which by now is well known and documented thanks to the Korean press during the North Korean UAV crisis last year, when Blighter even appeared on Korean national television. Starting from the first two radars in 2010, our sales to the South Korean Armed Forces have grown year on year such that we now have a line of systems stretching along the 250km Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) from the far west coast through to the east coast with some additional critical installations along the way. The region is considered one of the world’s most mountainous areas with environmental extremes of -30ºC in winter and a humid +40ºC in summer. The Blighter radars work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, monitoring the 4km-wide DMZ for any human, vehicle or low-flying aircraft incursions. It is a really tough and extreme environment but our radars continue to work there, and we have yet to have an operational failure.
Q: Where do you see the future for Blighter Surveillance Systems and its technology?
Upwards! I mean literally looking upwards at UAVs. We have already proven Blighter’s core capability of being able to detect small and slow moving targets, as highly appropriate for other markets including coastal security and air security where that small object is the key thing being searched for. To this end, we have recently introduced a sea clutter filter into the Blighter radar for coastal surveillance, which has proven to be really effective at removing large waves from the radar image.
Later this year, following a significant number of highly successful trials, we shall be rolling out an integrated radar/camera system which has parameters optimised for detecting these small plastic framed aircraft or UAVs. Again, I am delighted to say that our choice of technology back in 2003 is equal to this task. Our selection of operational frequency (Ku band) and the use of symmetrical e-scan (PESA e-scan on both transmit and receive beams) is ideal for spotting these small ‘boxes of electronics’ flying low just above cluttered ground.