‘There’s simply too much data for an individual human to digest’: Jean Page, BAE Systems
Image credit: Nick Smith
In three decades at BAE Systems, principal technologist Jean Page has seen sweeping changes in engineering. Innovation, once dominated by the defence industry, now relies on collaboration with the medical and gaming industries.
“I could pick out technologies that are going to be the next great thing,” says Jean Page. “But the biggest thing we’re seeing now is the rate of change of technology.” Page, who is the principal technologist at BAE Systems Air Sector, says this rapidity is creating an environment in which “we need to spot a technology, to seize it and put it into an application along timescales we’ve never seen before. We need to look beyond the boundaries of our disciplines, which is where the data analytics and machine learning is really going to help us, because it’s hard to spot opportunities without the knowledge, network and experience.”
BAE Systems Air is well known as a military aircraft manufacturer, currently with the high-profile Eurofighter Typhoon four-nation collaboration with Germany, Italy and Spain as one of the main products on its books. Despite that, the company’s main customer has traditionally been the UK Ministry of Defence. “We are a global company working with several other countries. We’re not just here to satisfy the UK’s requirements. We also have other products such as training on ground-based simulators. It’s about delivering defence capabilities to a global market.”
Page explains that the role of technologist at BAE Systems “really came into being because there’s a recognition that it’s key to our business that we have people that can drive forward the technology agenda”. Technologists are important “because, of course, they have an understanding of the technology requirements of our aircraft programmes. But their primary role is external engagement: to understand what’s going on in the outside world, whether that be looking at who’s funding what, or what other organisations are doing. It’s a rich picture. But it’s all about who’s doing what and where it’s going, and where it will be in the next five, 10, 20 years. Technologists need to be a bit visionary in that respect.”
The information Page garners is fed to other technologists within the organisation. While much of her research is structured, “where the technologist really plays a part is in the disruptive element, such as things happening in adjacent industries we hadn’t previously looked at”. At this point, Page refers to her background as a human factors engineer and psychologist, which gives her the experience to investigate areas such as the medical sector for inspiration. “If you look at the human augmentation we’re doing at BAE, a lot of it is coming out of medical industry robotics technology, for example.” She goes on to say the reason for such interest is that these are the technologies that can assist with overcoming similar problems in aircraft – particularly cockpit – design. “You can imagine that at 9G you can’t really move your arms as freely as usual, which means that some of the technologies used in the medical therapy environment can be of use to us, but for different reasons.”
Three decades ago, she says, “when I first started in this business, these technologies were driven by the defence industry. But today, it is increasingly the gaming industry that is driving the technology,” with the defence sector noting developments and analysing their relevance. “We’re interested in eye-tracking because there are several advantages to using it. Yet we also need to make sure that it will work in a cockpit that has high ambient light and vibration. It may be a relevant technology for on the ground, if you are operating an unmanned air vehicle, but it may not be suitable for the air model. Or we might have to do something to the eye-trackers in the gaming market to make them work for us.”
Back in the day, when looking to identify technologies to integrate into the portfolio it was possible to analyse them, “but if you didn’t think it was mature enough, you could leave it alone, even for a couple of years, before getting back to it. You don’t have that luxury now.”
One of Page’s current projects is human augmentation. While she predicts that the human will always remain critical to military decision-making, “increasingly we are seeing autonomous vehicles”, a scenario in which a human is remotely operating one or more vehicles. “The key point here’s that if you’ve got humans in the loop in this new complex environment, how are we going to help the human? We’re entering an age where the amount of data is phenomenal. There’s simply too much for an individual human to digest. Autonomous systems and computing generally have a big part to play in processing that data. But there’s also the issue of how that data is presented to humans, so that when they make a decision, they can be held accountable and responsible. This ‘trusted’ element of autonomy is going to be key.” For Page, the three technology areas for making this happen are data analytics, AI and machine learning.
She points out that products have a long lifecycle in aerospace; 50 or 60 years is typical. This often means the aircraft that initially goes into service “will be very different from what you have at the end of its life. It will have seen several upgrades and the environment in which it operates will have changed.” With competitors taking full advantage of what’s available on the market, the need to upgrade products faster is more pressing than ever. This means it is no longer possible to rely on an engineering-led requirement wish-list to fully develop product offerings. “We need to consider what might be needed in a different way.”
‘We’re entering an age where the amount of data is phenomenal. There’s simply too much for an individual human to digest.’
Page explains that BAE has experts working on what the future might be, with “some looking at where we’ll be in 40 years, while the rest of us might be looking nearer-term”. By product offerings, she is primarily referring to what “the public knows of” – military aircraft such as the Typhoon and future aircraft platforms. “Yet there are other products we need to deliver so the customer knows how to operate and service them. There is support, training, mission planning products and services that sit around the operation of platform.”
The rate at which defence technology is changing is matched by the speed of development of adversarial challenge, and with it comes design concerns over ease of upgrade. “If you look at the Typhoon cockpit, what you see is three small displays, and that’s essentially the cockpit that went into initial service. However, much of the aircraft’s capability has pushed forward and that cockpit is beginning to creak. Something we need to consider, looking forward to the next generation of aircraft, is how we can build in the ability to upgrade right from the very start of the product, such that when new capabilities come onto the market it’s much easier to pull a capability through.” The answer is to create a wearable software-configurable helmet, in which technology that doesn’t require cockpit hardware – eye-tracking, voice recognition, control haptics – is designed into wearable tech rather than the aircraft itself.
Page has been a practising human factors (HF) engineer at BAE Systems since 1990, when she joined the company’s research and technology department to work on developing new human-machine interface (HMI) technologies in the context of future aircraft concepts. She went on to be HF lead on two aircraft programmes: the Nimrod MRA4 (1994-99) and the Joint Strike Fighter (1999-2006). She also took on responsibility for BAE Systems’ HF integration programme that included design input and assessment to ensure “safe, reliable and efficient usage, and to increase system effectiveness”. She was also responsible for human interfaces on the F-35 combat aircraft programme. After roles in BAE Systems’ MAI (Military Air and Information), in 2015 she was appointed HF lead technologist for that sector. She is also a BAE Systems global engineering fellow.
Despite moving about within this domain, spending three decades as a technical specialist in the same industry with the same organisation has given Page an insight into how the landscape has changed over time. “It used to be very different. The need to collaborate is much, much stronger now. When I started there were collaborations – we were working on Tornado at that point, and that was a collaborative programme – but the need has increased. At the time, we probably thought we had the ability to do an aircraft programme on our own. From a functioning capability point of view, I still think we could. Yet today, the climate has changed, certainly in Europe, such that no manufacturer would be likely to go it alone. Because of the costs of developing a new aircraft programme you need to engage with others to get it done. Now, more than ever, working in partnership is seen as a strength.”
Page says it will be “interesting” to see the effect of Britain’s changing relationship with Europe on the UK air defence sector. “In terms of developing science, engineering and technology, I think it will be a poor step if we lost that ability to collaborate. There’s a ‘wait and see’ game going on over how we can engage with various research institutions in future. The government is going to have an important role.”
If Page can’t be drawn further on the ramifications of Britain’s departure from Europe, she is less reticent on other changes. She notes that one of the biggest changes she’s seen in her career is the cultural shift in the way we deal with suppliers and technology partners, “particularly with small companies”. Previously, once it had been established there were possible grounds for collaboration, the following due diligence would involve “establishing how stable a company it was. We’d ask how long a company had been around before making an investment in it. But today, small to medium enterprises pop up for a fixed purpose and might exist for months rather than years. When you talk about an investment in such a company, what you’re really talking about is the people. Previously we’d have said that unless the company had longevity and was projected to be around in 20 years’ time, then the option would be too risky. But you can’t do that now. You need to understand there’s an agility in the way that companies form and disband. We’ve also learned that small companies don’t behave the way big companies like BAE Systems do, especially when you’re looking in the gaming market.”
Page sets up a hypothetical scenario in which “we’re looking to acquire a new technology. Let’s say a helmet. They’re looking at maybe selling us 100 of these. You need to bring in that capability. But, how many do you think they sell into the gaming market? We need to be mindful of how their business works in order to make it a win-win situation.” Is BAE Systems ever tempted to just buy these companies in order to maximise the potential for their technology input? “We do when it makes sense. We look at the intellectual property, which is often a driver for how we partner. But in reality, you just don’t need to buy or merge with companies. It’s about keeping whatever innovative spirit that small team may have, while trying not to hit them with all the big company process.”
One change over the past 30 years is the effect of digital communication on the way knowledge is disseminated. “Early on in my career, you had your own domain knowledge that you developed through understanding the products or your research. When you needed to cross into another domain, you relied on your human network. If I wanted to understand more about, say, ejector seats, I would talk to the flight systems expert and we would compare our knowledge on the subject. There might be some documents shared, and I’d keep them in a drawer.”
Page isn’t saying that face-to-face networks no longer exist, “but being able to share information digitally means that collaboration has moved on another step. You’re not relying on the person to drive the conversation so much as the digital knowledge. If I go forward a generation, perhaps it will be the machine learning telling you what effect a 20 per cent change here or there will make.”
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