I was lucky to attend the 2018 Mountbatten lecture at Savoy Place, London. This year’s speakers were Dr Julia Sutcliffe of BAE Systems and Air Marshal Julian Young of the Royal Air Force.
Dr Sutcliffe’s theme was “Air Sector Technology – is the sky still the limit?” and spoke of breakthrough technologies such as cloud computing and artificial intelligence as the 4th Industrial Revolution (after Steam, Electricity and Electronics/Computing). Her interest in military air systems is the generation of huge amounts of information for each single flight – not only from machine performance but also from crew health metrics. It would be a game changer to be able to receive the telemetry in real time so that appropriate action could be anticipated and actioned as soon as the plane returns to base. Other topics were unmanned systems for dirty or dangerous tasks and “Chemputation“, a method for using algorithms to build materials.
Air Marshal Young’s theme was “RAF 2118 – Engineering the next 100 years”. His point was that the Royal Air Force has been entwined with technology throughout its whole life, with innovation often the deciding factor in conflicts. Innovation has produced accuracy improvements in weapons delivery as well as amazing reliability for engines (such as the EJ200 in Typhoons). Novel technologies can also deliver increased operational performance, reduce production costs and reduce through-life savings – leaving more money to buy shiny new aeroplanes.
Interestingly, multi-core processors are not currently sanctioned for use in safety-critical systems because predictability is paramount. And whilst 3D printing could potentially allow spares to be produced “in theatre”, in practice it’s more reliable to produce them at home in a factory and send them in one of the daily flights transporting crew/cargo to the area.
The RAF Engineering teams breed a culture of innovation and “restless improvement” with each new generation.