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The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has launched the Enduring Challenge, a £6m technology development contest to be run through its new Defence and Security Accelerator, which was set up to match suppliers with innovation partners and boost supplier access to the defence and security services.
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The Enduring Challenge builds on a previously successful Centre for Defence Enterprise (CDE) contest, with increased funding and access to government and military resources to help startups, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and large corporates fast track the development of innovative technological solutions for the UK’s armed forces and security agencies, from idea generation through development, testing, and ultimately exploitation in the field.
The initiative has been designed around nine key strategic and military challenges faced by the armed forces, many of which would have been familiar to the great military tacticians of history.
From a technological standpoint, these challenges include communications, use of data, situational awareness and mobility, although they also include more general challenges such as reducing cost of ownership, using more efficient power sources, human performance, and of course, weapons.
At the competition launch event in London, Rob Solly, acting head at the Defence and Security Accelerator, told the audience the scheme was aiming to close the gap between defence suppliers and users, and encourage and enhance collaboration between the two communities.
“Suppliers and inventors are the fuel that sparks innovation, users and inventors provide the oxygen, our role is to mix you together and ignite it,” he said.
Minister for defence procurement, Harriet Baldwin MP, said that the Accelerator was an organisation that was “not designed to hang about”, and cited the challenge of Brexit, the ongoing threat of Daesh in the Middle East, and the deteriorating global geopolitical environment as urgent incentives to innovate.
“Our £800m Innovation Fund seeks to make the UK the world’s most competitive place to innovate. It is why we have been working hard to keep up the drum beat,” said Baldwin in her keynote speech.
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Speaking to Computer Weekly at the launch event, Baldwin said the MoD had set itself the goal of procuring at least 25% of its needs through SMEs, and was currently running at about 19%.
“I hope doing more of these events sets up a very clear front door for a startup or spin-off that wants to find its way into the defence supply chain,” she said.
Baldwin added that hopefully, the support provided by the Accelerator in terms of access to defence and security personnel and other means of support, would also encourage more SMEs to become involved, and help them break through some of the bureaucracy that surrounds the MoD.
3D printing, the use of big data and AI
Areas of interest highlighted by some of the armed forces personnel at the event included 3D printing, the use of big data and artificial intelligence (AI), and enhancements to networking technology.
In the case of 3D printing, units could in future be sent to troops on the front line to easily and quickly construct cheap drones for surveillance purposes, or a range of other lightweight components, cutting down on shipping costs and saving time and energy.
Meanwhile, big data and AI will help the military understand and even predict human behaviour better, with the intention at least of preserving lives, while enhanced, miniaturised radio sets will better help ground forces communicate with each other in harsh environments.
The first contest in the Enduring Challenge will explore how the armed forces can exploit big data to make better and more informed decisions. It is already open to sign-ups, with a deadline of 5 April 2017 for proposals and the first funding decisions to be taken shortly after. The MoD said it anticipated running around 12 competition rounds a year.