Western Eye’s Science & Technology Team, Antony Poveda and James Riley, attended DPRTE this week, with the aim of reporting on exactly what kind of technology was on display behind those guarded doors.
The phrase ‘arms fair’ conjures up many unpleasant connotations: For some, it brings to mind shady deals with despotic foreign powers, for others, it’s Bullingdon Club backed corruption and bribes. Most people will link it to the ethically dubious business of taking advantage of the destruction of human life.
Whatever your viewpoint, it would be fair to say that having the DPRTE at the ECC has made for an interesting week at UWE: all night protests; sightings of unmanned drones; rumours of cluster bombs; demands for a citizens’ inspection; accusations from both delegates and protesters of physical violence and injury. Where did the truth lie? What were they hiding inside this unassuming conference centre? And what does DPRTE even stand for? Western Eye attended this highly politically-charged event with the seemingly thankless task of objectively reporting the technology on display.
We arrived at the ECC at 11am and were immediately diverted to the back entrance by police to avoid the protesters at the main gate. We passed through security and registration by slyly displaying our email confirmations on our phones. Bravely clutching press passes we checked our biases at the registration desk and delved in to see what was actually on show inside this alleged ‘arms fair’.
First to catch our eye was Skyonix, who develop, in their own words: “Aerial Imaging Systems for use by industry, agriculture, military, civil and the emergency services.” In practise, this meant small unmanned aerial vehicles (SUAVs) outfitted with varying amounts of rotor blades and extremely stable HD camera rigs, or ‘gimbles’. Demo video of the largest version, the six-blade ‘hexcopter’, illustrated the machine’s extreme maneuverability and, more impressively, it’s smooth and seamless video. Coupled with easy to use phone and tablet controls, the suggested applications of this tech ranged from outside broadcasts to surveying forest fires and disaster zones, through to the more military minded roles of border patrol and reconnaissance. We were struck by the possibility of independent film companies using these SUAVs to cheaply recreate soaring Hollywood helicopter shots for a fraction of the price. With a load of ten kilos they are unlikely to be toting any weapons in the future but with it’s practicality, price and incredible imaging capabilities, it’s easy to see why Skyonix would want to promote themselves to the MOD.
Next up were the medical equipment company Ambu and their disposable life-saving laryngoscopes. Fibre-optic cameras have been around a while, and have been used in our hospitals to perform endoscopys and key hole surgery. They have problems though as they are expensive, prone to breaking, and must be sterilised after every use. This means the supply is limited, which can be an issue in cost conscious hospitals and especially in remote areas such as the UK’s Camp Bastion. Ambu have developed a two-part laryngoscope that gets around this problem. The first part is a reusable section that has a display screen. This connects to a second disposable section that is inserted into the patient’s oesophagus. After using the camera to quickly and accurately place the attached entubation the lower, now non-sterile, part is then discarded leaving the imaging section to be reused with a fresh camera tube. Meaning that you don’t need to sterilise the equipment after every use and any broken cameras can be quickly and cheaply replaced. The representatives likened the functionality of the laryngoscope to a fire extinguisher: you grab it when you need it, and it saves lives.
Taking quick looks at other stalls really solidified the emphasis on the ‘T’ of DPRTE. It was a technology fair, with mostly small to medium-sized business trying to find defence applications for their widely applicable technology: Road surfaces, made from recycled tyres, which actively drain run-off water, therefore reducing chances of flooding; software which can produce 3D-models from a series of 2D images; portable x-ray systems which can produce images of of 100micron clarity – enough to inspect the inside of a circuit board; and an ingenious process of turning waste products, from the benign to the hazardous, into usable ‘clean’ energy. The fact that many of these technologies were about saving lives and sustainability surprised us, we had not expected such wide-ranging innovations.
BAE Systems also made an appearance with one of the largest stalls in the whole exhibition, although they were not displaying the cluster bombs which had been anticipated by some. This was BAE Advanced Technology Centre, showcasing some of the most impressive tech on display. They had been working with universities across the UK to develop a UAV which is controlled not by flaps, as most modern aircraft are, but by directing currents of air above and below the rear of the wing. The increased efficiency of flight could revolutionise aviation. Circulation air control is not a new idea, but the development stage of the technology had not been surpassed until BAE got involved. The second display case on BAE Systems’ stall was a water-driven turbine called Riverstream. It had been developed, with the help of BAE, to produce energy from low-current areas of rivers. The third glass box on the BAE stand contained a miniature replica of the bob skeleton which took Amy Williams, at over 80mph, to Olympic Gold. Their spokesperson said: “We want to facilitate the collaboration of academia and industry. Both spheres have massive amounts to gain from mutual partnership.”
There were more overt defence related items on other stalls, although they were greatly outnumbered by the amount of technology which we labelled: ‘defence by association’. One such overt company, Raytheon ELCAN Optics, displayed it’s optical sights for assault rifles, with the unique feature of switching between 1.5x and 6x zoom for close and medium-range fighting, respectively. This was one of the few points which the exhibition took a more sinister angle: conjuring an uneasy feeling in the stomach. Scopes are for nothing else than a more precise shot, and in this context, a shot no doubt directed at another human being.
Another more overt stall was held by ST Kinetics, the creators of the Warthog armoured vehicle. It has replaced a previous armoured vehicle the Viking, used by the British Army, who’s light armouring resulted in numerous troop casualties and fatalities. The new and upgraded heavily-armoured vehicle comes in four variants for military use: Troop Carrier, Ambulance, Command, and Repair & Recovery. ST Kinetics claim that the Warthog’s improved armour has saved troops lives during it’s deployment by the British Army, as troops inside have suffered zero fatalities from improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Like most of the technology on display at DPRTE the Warthog has civilian applications too, with ST Kinetics developing a Search & Rescue variant for deployment in disaster zones. The sturdy structure, as well as the fully-amphibious capabilities of the unarmoured version, makes for a reliable rescue vehicle which can be deployed in a wide-array of natural or man-made disasters.
Stands were being packed up. It was quarter to 4. Where had the time gone? It was a fact that the technology on show had been fascinating and inspiring in some respects, it was totally unanticipated to see a range of technology which was so unrelated. It was almost a strange catch-22, that although it was obviously worthwhile to exhibit these innovations in a university setting, these technologies would not be gathered together in one place were it not under the guise of the DPRTE, which, undeniably exists to promote values that are at odds to large parts of the student body.
However, it must be said, that to label DPRTE an ‘arms fair’ is to grossly misrepresent what it was. It was an exhibition of disparate technologies by businesses, most of whom were looking to expand into the defence sector. The majority of the technology on show at DPRTE was from small and medium British businesses that had not developed products with military applications in mind but had found these were potential markets worth exploring in order to expand their business. We are not saying that there were no overtly defence-related technologies on display, as there were, but there were certainly no arms. As a university with the Ministry of Defence down the road and BAE Systems not much further, in a city with a proud engineering and entrepreneurial heritage, is it quite unsurprising that this event happened here. It is, perhaps, unfortunate that students from the engineering or design faculties at the university were not invited to the event, as exposure to such a wide-range of innovative designs would surely be beneficial to their studies.
There certainly are legitimate criticisms of the illegitimacies of the arms trade. A trade which, at its worst, seeks to facilitate the destabilisation of already unstable nations and regimes, and the ensuing capitalisation on this catalysed chaos; but also a trade, which at its best, helps to facilitate the legitimate defence of just governments against forces which seek to oppress, destroy and destabalise, to wind back the clock of civilisation. War is never the first answer, and should never be the first response to dispute. Peace is the ideal. But in a world where complex sociopolitical interactions occur, between nations of differing worldwide aims, responsibilities and capabilities, the end of the need for the defence industry, in any guise, is no way tangible, palpable or distantly plausible.