Daily Archives: 13 July, 2010

How to build… Britain’s Secret Engineers

Aside from having a gramatically suspect title, this was another interesting instalment in the BBC’s ‘how to build’ series, that kicked off with a look at the Astute Class Nuclear Submarines several weeks ago.

QinetiQ is, essentially, the UK’s former Defence research and development in privatised form. Since formation in 2001 and floating on the stock market in 2006, QinetiQ has expanded and taken on concerns globally, including in the US. I’m not sure I personally agree with the country’s defence technology expertise being hived off to the private sector, even if the Government does retain a controlling stake. But thats an argument for another day!

The main focus of this programme is the work to make eight Chinook heavy lift helicopters ready for acceptance by the RAF. They were initially purchased in 1995 as CH3 special forces versions, at a cost of £259m. However, due to problems with their operating systems they never actually made it into service, and instead have been sat in storage for years. Reportedly, they could not fly in cloud. It was, to quote, the Defence Select Committee, a ‘gold standard procurement cock-up’. One that seems even more ridiculous, given the shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan it was decided to strip the spare Chinooks down, refit them to CH2 standard and get them into use as soon as possible.

The work is largely being carried out by QinetiQ at Farnborough and Boscombe Down. We watch the project manager overseeing the final stages of the fourth Chinook, as the wiring is completed – a mammoth task indeed. One person I do not envy is the young engineer who climbed inside the fuel tank to work on a fitting inside – not for the claustrophobic, and he could only stay in there for short periods due to fumes. One of the final – and most interesting – parts of the project was the fitting of the rotor blades, something that looked paticularly fiddly.

Another interesting project is the Tallon unmanned bomb disposal vehicle, primarily being developed in America. Made out of very few parts, and with a highly maneouvreable arm, four cameras giving 360 vision, and enough power to pull a small family car, the Tallon is a prime example of the Defence industry reacting to the needs of the armed forces. Not only that, but QinetiQ are also developing the Tallon for civilian use. A fine example of how developments inspired by military needs can have spin-offs for civilian use too.

Its difficult to place too much stock on a TV programme, but the impression gained is one of a hard-working bunch of people who seem to appreciate that what they are working on is very important to the troops on the ground in Helmand. Its a shame however that the future looks bleak when it comes to UK Defence procurement, ie there isnt going to be much of it for the foreseable future. Therefore its probably wise for QinetiQ to be diversifying into civilian markets, such as developing stealth technology to prevent wind turbines interfering with air traffic control radars.

A company like QinetiQ should be the heirs of great British military inventors and designers such as Barnes Wallis, Donald Bailey and R.J. Mitchell. In particular, the UK Defence industry has fallen far behind when it comes to the export market – more should be done to create jobs for companies such as BAE and QinetiQ.

How to Build… Britain’s Secret Engineers can be watched on BBC iplayer

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