16 Mar 15. A visit to the Farnborough headquarters of multinational defence technology company QinetiQ a couple of weeks ago was a timely reminder to me not only of what a fascinating company this is but also that QinetiQ is just the sort of company the UK needs more of if we are to meet the many future challenge we face in turning the UK into a really skilled, high-tech, ideas based engineering, manufacturing and service based economy.
Primarily although not purely engaged around the defence and aerospace arena one good way of describing QinetiQ is to suggest that it is there to de-risk complex research and development programmes as they move forward. True enough but that would only be half the story because through the example of testing military capability, components and equipment in order to evaluate risk, safety and viability QinetiQ also plays a very important role developing new technology and with it, valuable Intellectual Property.
Whilst the company might well have other ways that better describe what it does I believe that in the context of an independent company primarily engaged in test, evaluation, project and programme development they rarely come better than this.
With global revenues of £1.2bn, employing over 6,000 highly qualified engineers, scientists and workers in over forty countries internationally and in being engaged on no less than a thousand or more different defence related contracts QinetiQ is certainly no slouch. To give some further clue to how this company operates would be to remind that it holds no less than 1,500 individual patents with another 1,000 pending.
Be it in defence and aerospace related programmes or those within maritime, infrastructure, utility and other forms of support the proven success that the company has established in the testing and evaluation of sophisticated state-of-the-art equipment on behalf of a large bank of customers that include the MOD, defence contractors, aircraft manufacturers and many others engaged across the wide spectrum of industries is as wide as it is also remarkable.
Although I have visited QinetiQ (the company was formally the MOD’s in-house research laboratory that was until 2001 known as the Defence Evaluation and Research Laboratory –DERA) at Farnborough several times over the past twenty-five years it was pleasing to see on this most recent visit that the facilities and operation of the company have come on a very long way since my previous visit four years ago.
Highly invested and, as you would expect a test and evaluation company to be, a diverse company offering services and products spanning air, C4ISR, Cyber, Acoustic sensing and noise control, robotics, space, survivability, weapons and training QinetiQ is not standing still.
True, the previous CEO Leo Quinn who is now CEO of Balfour Beatty had a huge job of work to do in making the company more efficient and adaptable. He brought QinetiQ forward and he earned the respect of the ‘city’ for so doing.
With that work complete QinetiQ is in my view extremely well placed to move forward to the next stage of its development. Indeed, having last year completed the disposal of none peripheral activities the company has already made a number of important acquisitions over the past year that point the way to expansion.
In May last year for example it acquired US based Redfern Integrated Optics, a market leading supplier of low noise semi- conductor lasers and in November it purchased a substantial element of seismic processing and imaging capability from SR2020, a move which adding patented high definition borehole seismic imaging to its OptaSense activities. Fibre-acoustic sensing is changing the way that we are able to listen and detect and to put all this all in context would be to say that what QinetiQ is doing is building earth’s nervous system.
Having watched a demonstration of the seismic processing and imaging capability (this uses a fibre-optic cable and microphones buried deep in the ground and that are linked to a ground station system that can be located anywhere in the world) I was left in no doubt that this fascinating state-of-the-art technology has massive potential within the important role that it can play in terms of improving global security.
QinetiQ is clearly to be considered market leader in seismic processing and imaging capability and the importance of the IP should not be lost. Examples of use for the technology may be found in the protection of thousands of miles of oil pipeline (at present only 24,000 kilometres of the world’s estimated 1.1 million kilometres have fibre optic acoustic cables buried alongside) and also in protecting boundaries and international borders. The ability to pick up seismic sounds immediately that any disturbance occurs means that vast amounts of time can be saved in getting force protection elements to the location that has been disturbed.
Retention of Intellectual Property (IP) created is an important consideration when looking at QinetiQ. IP is a valuable commodity and properly managed and defined the benefits can continue providing an income stream for very many years. Alarm radar which had been developed by QinetiQ for the British Amy very many years ago to get round the problem of previous inability to detect rocket-propelled grenade attacks and that is now sold to the military of many companies may be one such example of this.
Other IP related examples would be TALON, a fast Tracked Military Robot of which 4,500 units have so far been sold to over 30 countries. In this case TALON is I believe produced in a wholly owned QinetiQ subsidiary company in North America by the name of Foster-Miller Inc. The point though is that TALON Robots have been used in the detection of IED’s in theatre for many years by the military of many countries and so good are they that they can even detect gas. I understand from notes I made many years ago that TALON can also be reconfigured to conduct a wide range of missions apart from searching for IED’s – this includes chemical, biological, radiological as well as many other elated missions.
Another interesting example of what QinetiQ has achieved in recent years is Trusted Borders. Led by Raytheon Systems this is a UK consortium of companies that includes QinetiQ, BAE Systems, Serco, Accenture and others who were contracted by the Home Office back in 2007 to develop and implement the UK’s proposed ‘e-Borders’ project. Now considered hugely successful and based on an advanced sophisticated system of border control and security, to give an example of the high level of success achieved since the system first went into operation would be to say that no less than 1,600 stowaways have so far been detected before they arrived in the UK.
In today’s more complex world technical expertise, know-how and rigorous independent pre-requisites for success. The company employs large numbers of highly specialist engineers and scientists that are uniquely placed to provide technology solutions and support. It is a brilliant concept and one that is hugely important to the UK. We need more scientists, more specialists and we need to spend far more on research and development if we are to achieve what the government seeks in terms of rebalancing the economy and making ourselves into technology leaders. QinetiQ is playing its part in providing a sound basis for success.
With skills shortage, training and retention of qualified engineers being important topics for industry a particularly interesting development pioneered by QinetiQ late in 2013 and that I wrote on last year is the 5% Club. With founder members, apart from QinetiQ, including Babcock International, Airbus Group, Atkins, MBDA and Renishaw, the ‘5% Club’ is not yet another of those interminable talking shop that sets out good intentions but ends up achieving little. Far from it and from the outset the 5% Club was an attempt to persuade industry to adopt a as a standard default target, meaning each company that joined would be signing up to a charter agreeing that they would aspire to work toward achieving a target of 5% of their respective workforce being young people on graduate, apprentice or sponsored student schemes within five years. Achieving this within five years may not be easy for everyone but the point is that they accept the need and will all do their level best to succeed. Interestingly, the Ministry of Defence is the latest to confirm it has joined the 5% Club.
Apart from its international interests and Farnborough QinetiQ operates from and manages two UK MOD based operations, the first being at Boscombe Down where amongst other activities it runs the Empire Test Pilots School and the second at Pendine Range in South Wales which is used to test probes to take measurements from space. When he was here in the UK for the NATO summit in Wales last September President Obama visited Boscombe Down.
To list all the other many other activities that QinetiQ engaged would take far too long. But in drawing this ‘Commentary’ to a close I will mention the massive aircraft Noise Testing Facility plus another massive wind tunnel structure that is currently being used by Boeing. Last but by no means least of many examples that I could mention would be the training system provided by QinetiQ for Australian miners which involves complete immersion in a virtual reality based system designed to train miners how to cope and what signs to watch out for ahead of potential deep underground explosions or tunnel collapse. This was very impressive indeed.
Steve Wadey who will join QinetiQ as its new CEO in late April will find a company that is bubbling with enthusiasm to move forward. A great and very interesting company QinetiQ certainly is and one that under his leadership and direction is I am sure very well placed to grow and prosper.
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