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Industrial Fellowship drives UK’s leadership in the development of Autonomous Systems


Ben Pritchard, Research Group Leader

The Royal Academy of Engineering has awarded an Industrial Fellowship to one of Thales’s leading researchers in autonomy, who in partnership with the University of Southampton, seeks to prove how the technology can transform the maritime sector.

Thales customers want to be able to perform ever more complex tasks for longer, at greater distances and lower costs. Ben Pritchard, Research Group Leader for Autonomous Systems at Thales has played an important role in demonstrating complex operations involving multiple autonomous vessels to be run at squad level, in order to address these challenges. 

In recognition of the great work that has been undertaken so far, the Industrial Fellowship will enable Ben to drive the research forward, whilst embedding himself as a key representative for Thales within the university. 
For the next 16 months, the Integrated Mission Management System research will be focused upon three key areas:

  • Optimising mission planning and rehearsal for squads of autonomous systems to achieve shared goals
  • Maximising the use of real time data for officers to make informed, accountable decisions
  • Improving trustworthiness, through new verification and validation techniques

Ben commented: “While the focus of the partnership has been on maritime autonomous systems, I have full confidence that once the technology is proven to work in this demanding environment, the capability will easily be applied to other sectors, from space to rail systems.”

New direction

This year marks a new direction for the Royal Academy, with Industrial Fellows being embedded into academic institutions for the first time, as opposed to the traditional approach of academic researchers being placed in an industrial environment to transfer their knowledge. 

For an equal proportion of Ben’s week he will remain at Thales, so that he can disseminate the knowledge he has gained from the research back into the business. This will also support his role of Research Group Leader, which involves identifying and maturing technologies that have the potential to transform the future capabilities of customers. 

Research Partnership

In 2018, Thales and the University of Southampton formed a strategic research partnership, with the aim of undertaking exciting, high quality research that has a strong industrial impact. Due to this, a key part of Ben’s role will be matching the world-class research capability within the university with the global needs of Thales. 

To enhance the learning exchange, Ben will also play a role in helping the university to enhance its curriculum, mentor PhD students, support relevant student societies and undertake shared outreach activities. He will also connect the university to Thales’s wider network of key stakeholders that are leading on research and development, such as Thales CortAIx, which is one of the world's leading Artificial Intelligence ecosystems based in Montreal. 

“Working with Thales, enables us to build a common understanding of industrial needs and for my research to be focused on the areas that are fundamental challenges to the sector. Working with Ben through this fellowship will strengthen this common understanding and continue to develop the strategic partnership.” Dr Jon Downes, Lecturer in Ship Science and Engineering.