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Dr Yoge Patel, CEO of Blue Bear Systems Research, an autonomy and unmanned systems development, shares her thoughts on the growing demand for unmanned technology, the UK -India Tech corridor and the future of the autonomous sphere.
What bought you to the field of unmanned and drone technology?
My real passion is Mathematics and how generations of theory laid down over many centuries ago can still find new applications in the modern world. I loved Mathematics so throughout my formative years that I applied myself to formal education in order to apply all the theory that I had learned to real problems to try and make a real difference. I literally stumbled into unmanned and drone technology at the UK government laboratories, then called the Defence Research Agency (DRA), after completing my PhD and Post Doctorate Fellowship studies in Aerospace. By then I had accumulated a good track record in winning funding for innovative proposals for developing next generation flight control technology.
I was incredibly lucky in that I joined DRA in the early 1990s just as the era of autonomy was emerging so I was able to propose and deliver research into emergent aircraft and drone technologies. The UK is a world leading innovator, so the UK Government Lab research is a privileged position. My 10 years there were a turning point in my career, in that I learned how to take innovations through to products and, more importantly, how to build multi-national and multi-disciplinary teams to deliver a new capability. I was involved in a number of UK-EU and UK-US collaboration programmes as well as UK centric consortia that really helped me understand that successful products are not just about the technology but really about people. During these years I also developed from a shy young adult to a confident experimenter of a whole range of new skills from people management to exploration of adjacent technologies and processes (e.g. aerodynamics, structures, vehicle design, flight test and evaluation).
I left the Government labs in 2006 with a QinetiQ Fellowship, which is akin to an internal Professor, and a broad mix of experience in different stages of procurement of military equipment. I then joined Blue Bear; a fledgling 5 people strong Small to Medium Enterprise (SME). Blue Bear gave me a fantastic opportunity to exercise all that I had learned. The company had an eye on building and testing drones that could keep apace with US funded technology. This was a challenge given the UK budgets are modest compared to US treasury budgets but nevertheless we set out on the journey with support from UK Government Labs.
Today, the Blue Bear Group is on top of the game with world leading solutions for drones in both military and civil sectors. At 9 years old, I could never have imagined that this is where a keen interest on Mathematics could take me!!
What innovations in this field offer the most revolutionary potential in coming years?
Today we are seeing increasing use of unmanned vehicles and systems in the civil world. Everything from delivery of life-saving organs, search and rescue, blue light uses (police, fire fighters, ambulance) to monitoring of agriculture and wildlife. By far, the use of drones for inspection/monitoring and transportation are predicted to be the biggest markets.
Inspection covers everything from monitoring of indoor assets/activity to outdoor 'beyond/within visual line of sight' operations. The drone often supplements or replace manned land/helicopters/cherry pickers/cranes. In many countries we already step off a manned aircraft and onto an unmanned train to take us to our destination. Many organisations and countries and are already looking at unmanning more parts of the whole transportation chain on the road (cars, buses, lorries), in the air (urban mobility, cargo planes), and on the sea (boats, ferries) within the next 20 years.
Given this backdrop, innovations in autonomy, AI, vehicle control management systems, sensors, vehicle design, vehicle energy/power sources and systems, human-machine interfaces, security will play a part in revolutionising the sector. Whilst such whole vehicle and component technologies are critical to the success of these new markets, I suspect that the real game-changers will come from innovations in process and procedures to design, test and evaluate, cert ify, manufacture and operate these new classes of transportation. Whole new enterprises and new infrastructure will emerge in the future to enable the new unmanned modes of transportation to be consumed in volume by the everyday man on the street, industry and Govt alike.
The burgeoning global interest in Urban Mobility alone in the last 2 years is testament to the direction of travel in this exciting sector.
What is the scope of Unmanned Technology for a country like India - Military and Civil?
India is incredibly well positioned to benefit hugely from unmanned technology and capitalise on its volume use, initially by own country use. Not only does it have probably the world's largest volume demand for drones, it also has little legacy infrastructure that will hinder the uptake of the new products and services in this emergent sector. The challenges presented by compliancy with existing equipment and existing infrastructure and processes are often the greatest barriers; existing market encumbents will seek to protect their revenue streams whilst next generation products are being developed. India has a real opportunity to take a technology 'generation leap', much like it did with mobile phones, and create a whole new sustainable drone industry.
A good part of India's plans for sustained growth includes the creation of many Smart Cities which are 'future-proofed'. That plus, the combination of vast territories and industries that India covers are compelling reasons for wholesale investment in drone technology by India. India also has many land and maritime borders to protect therefore it is inevitable that Defence and Security is a big driver for the use of drones in India. This driver is reflected in the Indian Govt's strategy for procurement and partnership. 'Make in India' and 'Made in India' is a smart initiative that will help India create a sustainable eco-system for the drone market.
Is the India-UK Tech Partnership delivering in this field What more would you like the Governments to do?
UK and India already work successfully together in many areas, including agriculture and next generation transport. The area of autonomous systems is one where we could seek more collaborative working. I have spent some time in India visiting companies, talking to Govt Labs and understanding its appetite for unmanned systems. I do believe there are a number of areas where we could engage more productively to the benefit of both nations. I would recommend both governments to put this topic higher on the India-UK Tech Partnership agenda.
What is the next big thing to look out for in the autonomous sphere?
Urban mobility is grabbing many headlines - that is, the use of autonomous systems to facilitate the transport of people and goods with partially or fully unmanned transport vehicle.
Whatever, the solution in the domain of equipment, our biggest challenges will be on Human Factors - how people interact with machines that are more autonomous than they are used to in present day. The world has conquered this human interface challenge with every disruptive technology thus far (just think about how people interacted with mobile phone technology 20 years ago compared with today) so I suspect that it will only be a matter of time before the autonomous systems 'ecosystem' harmonises for safe, volume use.
What does being a Global Indian mean to you?
A Global Indian is one who embraces that the world is a rich fabric of diverse cultures, all talented in their own rights, that can be bought together in a collegiate manner to create an astounding future for our next generation. Global Indians have an innate desire to forge a better environment not just for ourselves but for everyone, through persistent but humble leadership and, often, ambitious plans on the 'art of the possible'.
Dr Yoge Patel is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Blue Bear Systems Research Limited and Cassima Limited.