Leading edge motorsport technology finds applications in defence

Written by: Laura Hopperton | Published:
Leading edge motorsport technology finds applications in defence

For the Armed Forces, technological advantage is – quite literally – a matter of life and death. And, while it used to be the case that where the military led, the civilian world followed, more than ever this is a trend that is reversing.

In 2007, the Motorsport Industry Association (MIA) established an initiative to help motorsport companies engage with the defence industry and maximise the business opportunities which existed between them.

The project, which has so far seen motorsport-derived radiators, charge coolers, gearboxes, brakes, suspension components and seals provide real benefit to defence vehicles on the front line, was first issued by Lord Drayson (then Minister for Procurement at the Ministry of Defence) and Lord Astor of Hever, Minister for Defence Equipment and Support in the House of Lords.

Both strong supporters of motorsport, Drayson and Astor spotted an opportunity for the advanced engineering skills involved in designing racing vehicles to be transferred into the defence arena. The current Government has also got on board, with Peter Luff, Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology, hailing the success of the scheme during his speech at the MIA's Parliamentary Summer Reception last month. "I am pleased to say that defence is harnessing the technological strides being made in motorsport like never before," he commented. "There is no doubt in my mind that this initiative is saving lives."

One of the most high-profile projects borne out of the Motorsport to Defence initiative is that of Foxhound; a Light Protected Patrol Vehicle (LPPV) deployed to Afghanistan in June this year that came about as a result of a collaboration between Force Protection Europe and Ricardo.

The UK-designed vehicle has been built to withstand direct strikes from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and not only keep those inside safe, but be able to drive away on just three wheels. It has a V-shaped hull to help it survive explosions, an engine that can be removed and replaced in just 30 minutes, and a pod designed by an ex-Formula One design engineer that makes use of materials more commonly found on the Grand Prix circuit.

Elsewhere, Lifeline Fire & Safety Systems provided the innovative fire suppression systems to the engine and internal compartment, while BMW engineers helped outfit Foxhound with speed capabilities up to 70mph.

"Foxhound is an amazingly agile piece of kit," noted Chris Aylett, chief executive of the MIA. "We have also had similar success with other MIA members on important projects. Specialist brake and clutch manufacturer, Alcon Components, has also used its extensive motorsport experience to provide brakes for an upgraded Jackal armoured vehicle, while engine cooling specialist, NAR Group, has drawn on its Paris-Dakar experience to design a new dust proof cooling system for the Army's Panther, Mastiff and Ridgeback vehicles.

While the defence industry had reservations at first about whether technology from the motorsport world could be transferred, Aylett says it soon realised the numerous similarities between motor racing and the battlefield. "Both compete over variable terrain, experience extremes of temperature and adverse climatic conditions and both require high levels of protection," he commented. "The driving force behind the engineering output is also the same; warfare. The Formula One engineers working to make sure the blue car wins over the red car are working in the same envelope as those developing technology in defence trying to win wars.

"Both have urgent operational requirements in terms of speed and safety. If Jenson Button comes off the track and says to us 'this needs to be changed', we need to change it, and fast. Likewise, in the defence arena, engineering solutions need to be delivered quickly to help vehicles get in and out of difficult situations. It's not of case of 'wouldn't it be nice to have air conditioning', the reality is that if we don't do 'X', someone could get killed."

Another success story of the Motorsport to Defence initiative is the Supacat SPV400, which combines an integrated blast and ballistic protection system, including a protected all composite crew pod and again utilising a V-shaped hull. Using the latest composite and ceramic armour systems, the crew pod is constructed as a separate module, sealed off from potential secondary projectiles, such as kit and electronic devices, which are housed in a rear compartment. All seats are also mine blast-protected.

One interesting aspect of the Supacat's design is that it employs high and low range gears from Xtrac, a leading designer and manufacturer of high-technology gearboxes, differentials and driveline components. These can be actuated whilst the vehicle is on the move, enabling rapid transfer between on-road and more extreme off-road terrain. The transfer case centre differential provides a 50:50 torque split to the front and rear axles and is electronically controlled.

"While the military has historically been quite conservative, it is now interested in getting troops to theatre quickly. It also wants more open wheel vehicles, which is good because it has more of a synergy with motorsport," says Xtrac's chief engineer, Martin Halley. "There's a lot of parallel engineering between both sectors in that the race starts whether you're present or not and the war is still on regardless. You have to deliver a robust, reliable vehicle and it has to be ready for action by a particular date."

Aylett concurs: "This sense of immediacy wasn't being utilised before, but the military is starting to integrate ideas into industry to improve lead times and adapt to the ever-changing challenges warfare presents. Before the project was established, we had two world class sectors in the UK that hadn't recognised each other's value before. It makes you wonder how many more there are out there. We were surprised to find that rather than being filled with regulation, the defence industry was quite open to new ideas if they had the possibility to save a life."

While both Aylett and Halley admit that cost is a challenge, they believe the 'flash to bang' approach of the project has so far been a huge success. "The stunning thing is that we're only in chapter one of this relationship," Aylett noted. "The amount of ground that's been covered in such a short timeframe comes down to the incredible work done by engineers."

MP Peter Luff concludes: "Shared access to leading edge, high performance engineering will no doubt bring direct benefit back into defence. And the project – just like the broader motorsport industry – is energising interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in our young people. It is sparking the imagination of the next generation of engineers and scientists. Some of them will, in future, be responsible for winning championships and boosting our economy. But some of them will be responsible for winning wars."

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