Aimee Chanthadavong
February 5, 2018

Defence leads new tech agenda

Interview

Defence leads new tech agenda

Alex Zelinsky: Driving a new collaboration agenda across the Defence tech portfolio

When it comes to protecting Australia on all fronts – whether air, sea or land – we all like to hope that defence force has access to the most advance tools and weaponry they need. The nation’s Chief Defence Scientist and head of the Defence Science and Technology (DST) Group Alex Zelinsky is a central part of the team making sure that they do.

But Defence is not doing this work alone.

Since the release of 20-year strategic Defence White Paper in 2016, the Department of Defence has launched a series of science and technology programs that involve some form of collaboration with industry, academia, and other research agencies.

These initiatives include the $730 million Next Generation Technology Fund and its $640 million Defence Innovation Hub, which both form part of a larger $1.6 billion initiative focused on delivering Defence-related innovations and technologically advanced solutions to 2026.

“What we have to do is get out and start leading. I think it’s incredibly important for government to show leadership in science and technology,” Dr Zelinsky told InnovationAus.com.

“I’ve certainly been passionate about science, technology and innovation my entire career, and we’ve had the opportunity with the National Innovation and Science Agenda and Defence White Paper to really get Defence in the innovation space to take advantage of science and technology,” he said.

“It’s not something that should be left only in the hands of a few private enterprises or universities, given how important it is for our nation.”

However, if history is anything to go by, for industry at least, working with government can be a challenge. That goes for academia as well. But Dr Zelinsky is certain things are now changing.

“The Abbott and Turnbull governments have made it a priority to cut red tape and lower the cost of doing business with government, and we always do that without compromising the integrity of our programs,” he said.

In the case of Defence, all universities now work under a single arrangement, which covers IT, contracting, overheads, how scholarships are paid, how projects are funded and at what rate those projects are funded.

“What use to take months and months for our lawyers to talk with their lawyers is now being done in days and weeks,” he said.

Defence has collapsed what use to be 30-odd innovation and industry programs into three – the Centre for Defence Industry Capability, Defence Innovation Hub, and Next Generation Technology Fund.

“Those three entities are doing all the work those separate programs did. They also had separate arrangements, separate contracts, IP was handled differently, and now that’s all been streamlined and we have a consistent way to do things.”

The department has also become more realistic about IP ownership. “It used to be that ‘we’ve paid for this intellectual property for this contract, which means we own IP’. We’re not about that anymore,” Dr Zelinsky said.

“It’s actually about access to IP on fair commercial terms, so parties that generate the IP – be it a university, company or other agencies like CSIRO – they’ll still own the IP, and we will then licence it if we require it for our own uses.”

The changes that have been made so far, according to Dr Zelinksy, have received positive feedback. In some ways, he believes it has started to alter the way industry and academia think about working with Defence.

“These changes have changed a lot of attitude in industry and academia towards Defence, and I think that’s why we’re getting a strong engagement when we make our announcements about various parts of our program,” he said.

To take it a step further, the DST Group now carry out information roadshows to personally inform industry and academia about challenges that are being tasked under the Next Generation Technology Fund, instead of making online call outs for applications.

This approach appears to be paying off. The DST Group’s roadshow for its first challenge – Counter Improvised Threats Grand Challenge – attracted some 700 initial participants across the country. After several selection stages, Defence have chosen 13 partners to partake in its $19 million challenge over three years to develop technology solutions that will help neutralise improved threats without casualties.

The selected 13 partners include small businesses from Adelaide and Brisbane, as well as universities from Western Australia, South Australia, and Queensland. There are now plans to continue this process for every future challenge.

“It’s a good way to do things. It’s best to be transparent and tell people about it because a lot of people don’t hear about the programs,” Dr Zelinsky said.

“They may have heard about the challenge for autonomous systems but they don’t necessarily understand that there will be other calls, sometimes you’re always touching new people.

“I mean there have always been people who have thought the government has announced this program, but maybe nothing much will happen, but gradually they are starting to see as these announcements are made, things are being setup and we’re making progress. I think that is starting to generate momentum and interest.”

Looking beyond Defence, Dr Zelinsky believes there is more opportunity for government to continue to reduce unnecessary red tape for industry and academia.

“When you look at the report done by the Australian chief scientist Ian Chubb some years ago, it showed Australia had one of the worst collaboration rates between industry, government and academia,” he said.

“Countries that do collaborate more between those three parties do better. We’ve just got to do more of that. We don’t enough of that in this country.”

The idea of collaboration between industry and Defence, however, is not necessarily new either, with Dr Zelinsky, pointing out how works to develop the Nulka missile decoy system with BAE Systems and the University of Adelaide has become “Australia’s biggest defence export, well over $1 billion”.

“That now exports to nine countries,” he said. “Collaboration has been done before. We stopped doing it and now we’re doing it again. I believe based on our track record in the past that it can be done, and done successfully.”

He added there’s also an opportunity for departments to work more closely, alluding to recent recommendations that were made by Innovation and Science Australia as part of their 2030 Strategy Plan, which suggested for the Australian government to take advantage of the spill-over effects of major projects, such as those being run by Defence.

“We call them dual-use technology. That means you could use autonomous systems, for instance, not only in Defence but for mining automation, automation of port, agriculture, a whole bunch of areas,” Dr Zelinsky said.

“What we’re doing is making the opportunities available. At the end of the day we want people to come to us. We’re also pushing the technology into companies so they can produce the technology. Hopefully if they’ve got the products available they can look for new markets.”

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