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The end of uncertainty

Effective defence is about being as prepared as possible in the face of uncertainty. And when you’re protecting sovereign airspace, surveillance and radars are the most critical element. By scanning as far and as thoroughly as possible, they either give you the reassurance that all is well – or the earliest possible warning and greatest chance to react.


And there is an invisible strategic advantage in surveillance: reliability. The day-to-day maintenance, the checks, repairs and expertise behind the scenes are whate ensures that when decisive moments arrive, your ‘eyes and ears’ are as sharp as possible.


But with maintenance there’s always uncertainty. It’s too often reactive – no matter how thorough your checks, often the first sign there’s a problem is when a component fails. It’s expensive and inefficient to keep costly parts and skilled engineers on hand all the time ‘just in case’. And as equipment ages, these issues can get more costly and time-consuming.


But digital technologies – as well as new service models – look set to bring an end to this uncertainty. And the predictive maintenance partnership between the Dutch military and Thales for their new Smart-L radar system is providing a new model for what service and reliability can be.


The new partnership sees Thales taking full responsibility for maintenance, freeing the military from the time, logistics and expense. And a ‘predictive’ approach – made possible by smart sensors built into many components in the system – means it’s possible to have a much more proactive approach: many issues are spotted before they affect performance; components can be replaced before they fail; software upgraded to enhance capabilities.


Having many more sensors within the radar enables the gathering of much richer data and feedback, shifting maintenance from being ‘event based’ to being ‘insight-driven’. For example – previously, an alarm might have sounded if the temperature of a certain component went above a pre-determined threshold. This warning is better than nothing, but could still be too late in the day. Now, the digital sensors are able to detect and alert operators if they see a trending pattern of temperature increase. This issue can be addressed long before it would have been known about previously.


And the sensitivity and ubiquity of the sensors means that it is becoming possible to spot patterns with issues that have previously been too complex or infrequent for human operators to be aware of. And they are also providing insights that can be used to improve the design and reliability of components and software for the future.


Predictive maintenance isn’t without challenges: the highly sensitive nature of the information the radars are gathering means it isn’t possible to have a full ‘open big data feed’ being captured from the equipment. So cyber security – and a close  relationship of mutual trust between military and Thales – is absolutely critical.


And ironically, one of the factors that can limit the insights predictive maintenance can gather is if equipment is too reliable! Because there are only a few dozen or hundred units in operation (unlike the tens of millions of units of a consumer product), if things don’t tend to go wrong very often, the options to learn new stuff are more limited.


This approach to maintenance – proactive, insight-based and offered as a service – is all part of Thales’s ‘digital transformation’, which will ultimately see every component considered for its potential to provide insights to users, and every Thales engineer thinking ‘digital first’. It makes their customer-centric approach stronger than ever.


When equipment is more reliable, problems are proactively avoided, and insights come as standard, allied forces are more prepared than ever to face their decisive moments.