The value of an R&D dollar
Companies that create products and services for the military make significant investments in emerging technologies. R&D funding counts as table stakes in the military-products market, where businesses aim to discover serious differentiators and ensure their wares meet long-term requirements.
According to Research Infosource, which tracks Canadian R&D spending, military-focused businesses such as CAE and Thales Canada pour up to $115 million a year into research and development, on par with the leading pharmaceutical, biotech and IT developers. In 2012, the tracking company listed more than a dozen defence and security firms among its top 100 corporate R&D spenders, including Bombardier (2) and Pratt & Whitney Canada (6) in its top ten.
What’s driving research spending? Vanguard spoke with five companies about where they are investing their R&D dollars at the moment.
Bombardier: jet weight loss
When researching and developing new technologies for its aircraft, Bombardier’s aerospace division must consider not only the needs of the market, but also strict regulations that ensure jets are as safe as possible.
The company usually has numerous R&D projects on the go at various stages, says Dr. Fassi Kafyeke, director of strategic technology for Bombardier Aerospace. “When you’re ready to launch an airplane – when you have clearly identified customer need – you look into your portfolio and say, ‘What technologies do I have that are maturing?’”
One example is the new carbon-reinforced plastic ailerons and outboard flaps on its latest regional jets. Just over five years ago, the company aimed to reduce the weight of its jets and cut manufacturing costs. The firm looked into its store of maturing technology. Bombardier had already worked with university researchers to create a process known as resin-transfer moulding, a manufacturing method for carbon-reinforced plastic. The result: ailerons and outboard flaps that are lighter and easier to construct compared with earlier aluminum versions.
“The number of parts was reduced by 90 percent,” Kafyeke says. “That reduces manufacturing time and cost.”
COM DEV: picture perfect partnerships
At space-hardware manufacturer COM DEV International, partnerships play an important role in R&D. A joint venture with Moog Broad Reach and Inmarsat PLC exemplifies this.
According to Tony Stajcer, COM DEV’s vice-president of corporate R&D, COM DEV and Moog Broad Reach wanted to create a new networking option for low Earth orbit (LEOs) satellites, which carry instruments to take imagery of various parts of the world. Normally, these satellites downlink these images periodically. That means having to wait days to see if images are usable – or if the area to be observed is obscured by clouds, for instance.
If LEOs could download data in real time, satellite operators would be able to tell immediately if the images will be usable. And the operator would be able send a real-time command to the instrument to suspend imaging and save valuable satellite resources.
COM DEV and Moog Broad Reach saw a solution in Inmarsat’s geo-stationary satellites (GEOs). GEOs transmit data in real time. The companies conceptualized a system that would enable LEOs to link to GEOs, so the LEOs would be able to be controlled and download in real time, too.
The team led by Inmarsat secured funding from various government agencies including the European Space Agency. There’s plenty of work ahead. “You have to develop new code and new computers for the LEO terminal,” Stajcer says. “You have to develop new network technologies. And because it’s a micro sat, we needed efficient, low-power systems. It doesn’t have a lot of solar cells.” Testing will begin in 2014.
CAE: dynamic virtual worlds
Decision-makers at CAE, a simulation-system provider, recognize a trend among military clients: forces aim for a stronger return from technology investments. This fact informs the way organizations use CAE’s technology, and it informs CAE’s R&D efforts.
“In the past, people would use our products to train pilots,” says Mark St. Hilaire, CAE’s vice-president of technology and innovation. “Now, organizations want to use our simulation to do more mission training.”
As training requirements have changed, CAE has invested in the virtual worlds it creates to enhance realism. Late last year, the company unveiled its dynamic synthetic environment infrastructure. This technology enables autonomous changes in the simulation.
“In real life, for example, rain transforms a gravel road to a mud road that is untrafficable,” St. Hilaire says. “In old simulations, the road was hard-coded. You could run the simulator all day long with torrential rain. It would not change the nature of the road. In dynamic synthetic environments, the water would modify the road, as it happens in reality, and the modifications may impact how a mission is carried out.”
By presenting more realistic scenarios, CAE’s technology better prepares trainees for situations they’ll encounter on the battlefield.
General Dynamics: combat-net radio
General Dynamics Canada has served military clients for over 60 years. According to Chris Pogue, vice-president of land and joint solutions, that long history enables the company to direct R&D to help customers perform better and reduce costs.
General Dynamics provided the Canadian Forces with combat-net radios in the late-1990s. Recognizing the requirement for increased data throughput, the company initiated an R&D project to show a viable upgrade path for the current radio set.
The project led to a solution that will be deployed in 2014. The solution allows simultaneous operation of voice, chat and positional-awareness reporting – capabilities unavailable with the current radios but important for soldier tracking. “The soldier will know where the other soldiers are,” Pogue says. “It goes a long way toward helping them carry out their mission safely.”
According to Pogue, the solution will extend the life of the combat-net radio by a decade and helps the CF avoid a costly replacement program.
“None of this would have been possible if we hadn’t developed real trust with the customer through our 60-plus years in that environment,” Pogue says.
Thales: soldier systems suite
Thales Group pours approximately 20 percent of revenues into R&D, notes Mark Halinaty, vice-president and general manager of Thales Canada Defence & Security. That funding supports facilities such as the company’s research and technology centre in Quebec City and the Defence and Security Centre at Queen’s University in Kingston.
The company’s efforts enable it to keep up to date with the latest technologies. In fact, Thales poured its latest applicable advancements into its bid for the Department of National Defence’s Integrated Soldier System Project (ISSP) procurement. DND invited bids for a suite of equipment designed to help soldiers communicate with command centres.
But in defence contracts, as in life, nothing is guaranteed. DND cancelled the ISSP procurement in January because none of the bidders met the criteria.
Halinaty says the cancellation is a surprise but acknowledged, “it’s difficult to find compliance on such a complex bid.” While at press time Thales was waiting to hear what DND plans to do about the procurement, Halinaty notes that despite hurdles, it’s important for Thales to invest significantly in R&D to meet military customer needs.