DSEi: Struggling Auto Racing Industry Seeks Opportunities in Defense
LONDON — Cutbacks in defense spending have not deterred commercial businesses from seeking military contracts.
At this week's Defense and Security Equipment International (DSEi) arms show, companies that are losing business in a souring economy have come to display their wares in hopes of scoring a government contract.
Case in point is the car racing industry. Representatives from the U.S. Army were seen at DSEi investigating potential vendors who could provide innovative technologies for U.S. tactical vehicles. “Two years ago we knew nothing about defense,” said Jason Watkins, commercial manager at Cosworth, a U.K. company that provides engines for Formula 1 racecars.
“But the economy sent us falling off a cliff and we needed to diversify.”
Aside from high-powered gasoline engines, the company has done a lot of work with electronics, providing systems for pit crews and drivers to communicate. Cosworth also came up with a device to record data after high-speed accidents on the racetrack. The information collected helped inform vehicle designs and protective equipment for the driver. The company won a contract using the data recorder to study the effects of roadside bombs on military vehicles and their occupants.
The tough economic climate is forcing contractors to look beyond their traditional providers, said Alistair Fergusson, chairman of the international Motorsport Industry Association (MIA).
Cosworth isn’t alone in its pursuit of defense contracts. The MIA three years ago launched a “Motorsport to Defense” initiative aimed at getting their companies defense contracts. The movement has been helped along by former high-ranking defense official who is also an amateur racecar driver.
In the U.K., the motorsport industry already has a reputation for high-tech products, more so than in than in the United States, said MIA chief executive Chris Aylett.
“To some degree, we have been successful, but I think we can become even more successful,” he said. “We don’t want to become a member of the defense industry, but a critical supplier.”
Companies in the racing industry can provide resources for research and development, as well as build prototypes on an accelerated schedule, something that rarely is seen in most military acquisition programs, Aylett said.
U.K.-based Alcon supplies brakes and clutches to Formula 1 and Nascar racing teams. The company’s engineering projects manager Mike Jones said he could prototype a hydraulic system for a military vehicle in six weeks and have it in production in 12 weeks.
One manufacturer, Alpha Composites, used its lightweight materials to create a multi-functional product for the U.K. military. The Short Gap Crossing Bridge can help troops get across creeks and other terrain, as well as double as a ladder or stretcher. It is light enough to be carried by one dismounted soldier.
Another firm, Lifeline Fire and Safety Systems managing director Jim Morris, said that his company went from doing nearly all of its work for motorsport clients to dedicating half of its business to the defense sector in about three years. In that time, the firm managed to ink deals to provide protection technology for armored vehicles, including a light patrol variant called Ocelot, which is similar to the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles used by the U.S. military.
An Austrian company Steyr Motors adapted an engine for use in the Ocelot and is now working with a U.S. supplier to integrate a two-cylinder engine and auxiliary power unit for armored vehicles. The device would be like a “diesel-powered battery charger” for off-the-grid bases and hospitals, said Arthur Sams, owner of Los Angeles’ Polar Power Inc., which specializes in taking technology from various industries and crossing them over to the defense world.
England-based NAR Group has transitioned its cooling systems from classic racecars to military vehicles that experienced overheating during long fuel convoys. The firm adapted its technology, usually made for customers such as Ferrari and Jaguar, in hardly any time, owner Rob Goodwin said.
NAR Group was approached by the U.K. military about developing a cooling system in September 2009. By December of that year, the company had a prototype, and units were being shipped to Afghanistan by May 2010.
“Different customers, same challenge,” Goodwin said.
A company that builds temporary structures for sporting events and equestrian competitions also is chasing government deals. U.K.-based The Structure Group builds stages that are used in horse shows. The same structures could stop grenades and other ballistics from raining down on military outposts, said John Davy, business development director. These elevated decks and mezzanines can be built high enough off the ground to protect hospitals and other buildings, he said.