Improbable Defence

NavyPODS: how the Royal Navy is getting the latest innovations into the hands of users – fast

As its name suggests, the Ordnance Survey was born of rebellion and war. It is now, as it has always been, a model of military economy, efficiency and accuracy. But as I glanced at the map on my drive down to Somerset in early April, I was reminded of how its purpose has changed over the centuries – unless those tasked with mapping England’s vulnerable south coast in the mid-18th Century were as concerned with marking cosy rural pubs and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty as their contemporary cartographic counterparts: the Blackdown Hills, the Quantock Hills, the Somerset Levels.

In fact, Norton Manor Camp, which has been home to 40 Commando Royal Marines for nearly 30 years, can be a little hard to spot among all that rural splendour. And you won’t find marked on any map or chart the shipping containers that I was to call home for the next week – not least because they’re home to some of the Royal Navy’s most advanced and most sensitive technology.

These unremarkable-looking boxes are NavyPODS – i​​nterchangeable, interoperable modules that can be fitted to the surface fleet, bringing to life the idea of a ‘plug and play’ warship that can be configured swiftly for a variety of missions including collective training exercises, humanitarian disaster relief, and combined / joint operations.

Low-tech meets high-tech: Delivered using heavy-lift drones or autonomous boats, NavyPODS will give the surface fleet access to the latest, most effective, mission-specific capabilities anywhere in the world and at any time, without having to head back to port.

Fast forward through three long days of hard but rewarding graft alongside the Navy’s MarWorks team and partners from QinetiQ, Malloy, and CyViz, and the morning of the 7th April found us putting the finishing touches to the Command & Control PODS – 200 square feet containing some of the most advanced synthetic environment technology on the planet. Other leading industry suppliers were also fighting to meet the deadline, working together at pace to provide proof of industry collaboration and technological innovation before the attendees descended.

We had little time to spare. This was NavyPODs day, and a hundred VIPs would soon arrive from across the UK and around the globe: the 2nd Permanent Under Secretary of the Ministry of Defence, the First and Second Sea Lords, and defence attachés from allied nations including the USA, Canada, France, Australia Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.

Up and running: The C2 PODS is designed to help planners and decision makers synthesise data and extract the maximum value from it to support integrated, multi-domain operations. This configuration draws on Strategic Command’s Operational Decision Support Technology Demonstrator and Defence Digital’s Network Digital Twin – both co-developed alongside Improbable Defence – and employs Cyviz displays and a STARLINK connection.

Turning collaboration into a competitive advantage

The day went, I’m relieved to say, without a hitch. However, perhaps the most impressive thing wasn’t the world-class technology on display but something more abstract but every bit as powerful: there’s no doubt that NavyPODS is a potentially transformative initiative, but it’s the Royal Navy’s approach to developing this capability that could have an even greater impact across the whole of the Ministry of Defence and UK government.

It’s an approach that demands collaboration and embraces taking calculated risks on promising new technologies and then pulling them through fast from the R&D stage to prototyping and deployment.

This approach is, I think, essential given the fluid, fast-moving and intricately interrelated challenges faced by the MOD – challenges that can’t be solved by a handful of suppliers. It’s going to take an alliance of industry and academic partners – primes and system integrators, specialist start-ups, scale-ups and SMEs – pooling resources, combining expertise and sharing skill sets to realise true digital transformation.

Programmes like NavyPODS stand as testament to a not-too-distant future in which the MOD enables this collaborative approach by switching up how it explores, experiments, procures and executes in order to match the ever-increasing pace of warfare.

So as NavyPODS day drew to a close and our distinguished visitors dispersed, the tension that had been building over the previous week quickly evaporated. But, as I joined dozens of engineers from across industry in packing everything away, I was aware that a subtle, shared sense of optimism endured.