Futures Lab: Inside the MOD’s defence innovations service

The UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) has replaced its Niteworks service with Futures Lab, an engineering capability delivered by The Aurora Engineering Partnership. Berenice Healey talks to Aurora managing director at QinetiQ Simon Galt about what this means for accelerating defence innovation.

On 1 April, UK Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) launched Futures Lab, a service designed to accelerate the MOD’s innovation and ideas incubation process. Futures Lab replaces Niteworks, which originally aimed to provide a commercially-neutral environment for addressing complex defence challenges through a partnership between the MOD, industry and academia.

Futures Labs was developed by The Aurora Engineering Partnership, a collaboration between QinetiQ, Atkins and BMT. According to Aurora managing director at QinetiQ, Simon Galt, the partnership came about in 2018 in response to a DE&S requirement for a single engineering delivery partner to pull together engineering services across the three major domains.

“BMT, Atkins and QinetiQ came together through the breadth of domain expertise; QinetiQ in the air domain, BMT most prominently in maritime and Atkins prominently in land,” says Galt. “The Aurora Engineering Partnership is a prime contract with QinetiQ underpinned by a partnering agreement between our three organisations, delivering to, first of all, MOD departments.”

It's very cheap and simple to interfere with the signals, not just jamming but spoofing as well. 

Driving innovation

Aurora began discussions with the DE&S Future Capability Group (FCG) a little over a year ago as part of the Engineering Delivery Partner (EDP) programme.

“The FCG is positioned to drive coherency of innovation across the defence landscape,” explains Galt. “We're really partnered with James Gavin who's the head of the FCG, as one option for him, depending on the nature of requirement that his customers have. But clearly, it was using Dstl [Defence Science and Technology Laboratory] to do concept studies.

“There are various frameworks out there. The unique capabilities that we'll bring through Futures Lab are a pan-industry, agnostic view of the requirements and the capabilities that are inherent in QinetiQ, BMT and Atkins, to then go forward and exploit those bits of work that we do through the full development cycle.”

The barriers to the MOD exploiting technology on time have long been acknowledged as the cumbersome acquisition cycle and historically rigid, federated ways of carrying out programmes. But the MOD needs to innovate ever more responsively as new threats are generated. Galt says Futures Lab help the MOD overcome that through its relationship with the FCG, acting as a singular entity.

“Taking that agnostic view of what is the right thing to do will help overcome some of the challenges in the acquisition cycle,” Galt adds.

“If you engage with big singular organisations, you'll get one singular response and there's a risk there will be a vested interest in making sure that it fits into that position. We will be quite happy in Futures Labs to recommend all kinds of routes to innovation, which should help bring that down those barriers to exploiting it.”

// Simon Galt is Aurora managing director at QinetiQ about what this means for accelerating defence innovation. Credit: QinetiQ

// Simon Galt is Aurora managing director at QinetiQ about what this means for accelerating defence innovation. Credit: QinetiQ

Faster delivery

The EDP currently has 180 suppliers as part of its network and Galt says he recognises that new capability needs to come from a range of sources from academia through SMEs to defence primes.

“If people would like to join Futures Lab then we recommend they keep an eye on the EDP website where there'll be the opportunity to put themselves towards to join. We want to reward people for really getting involved and participating actively,” he says.

The approach is already producing results – the EDP has delivered £600m of orders consisting of over 1,000 tasks. Galt says it can take a requirement from the customer to getting that contracted about 25% to 30% faster than the Framework Agreement to supply Technical Support (FATS).

“That said, that is not quick enough,” says Galt. “We are generating what we call a single front door and challenging ourselves around ‘why can't we do it in half the time?’ Pushing ourselves to say, what are the preconditions, what are the things we have to do, rather than saying well, this is what we've always done in the EDP tasking cycle.’

“We can generate outcomes in 30 days for our customers and get them something that they can contract, which we're proud of and that are [by] no means complacent.”

Establishing credibility

Galt goes on to set out three main goals for Futures Lab in the year ahead, the first bring to establish credibility for the service.

“Niteworks had a bit of a mixed reputation,” he explains. “We have tried to maintain the great bits - and that is being industry-agnostic and delivering beneficial outcomes - but to do that in a more cost-effective and agile manner.

“Secondly, we will be proud if some things we generate from now come into the acquisition cycle very quickly. Failing fast is great but succeeding fast would be even better. Wouldn't it be great if a Futures Lab requirement came from cradle to grave, and made it to the acquisition cycle?

“Finally, is making a difference to our customers. There's always the drive to do more for the same or the same for less. I think the command plans are probably now saying ‘we need to do more for less’. So how can we help the UK Armed Forces genuinely move forward? By putting great outcomes in their hands. I think if we can do that in our first year of operation, we'll have done a fantastic job.”

Galt concludes by saying that the most important factor for Futures Lab’s success is to be held to account by industry for collaboration.

“We ask for people to come talk to us, engage with us and understand what we can do better,” he says. “That's the way we've been successful through EDP; we've got a partner network advisory group set up that’s the mouthpiece of the 180 suppliers through to us.

“We take that seriously because we do hold a privileged position as prime for this activity. How we can work and collaborate with SMEs particularly, but also industry at large, is going to be the key.”

// Main image: Futures Lab aims to accelerate the defence innovation cycle. Credit: Crown copyright MOD