Within a few years of arriving in the UK, Hungarian-born Orsolya Patterson was leading a new division of the Royal Navy. She shares her experience and lessons along the way
It’s funny how life can surprise you.
When I stepped off the plane on September 1, 2007, I was relocating from landlocked Hungary and excited – as well as more than a little nervous – about what lay ahead. I can say for some certainty that at no time did I expect that one day I would be heading up a new division of the Royal Navy (RN).
Fast forward a few years, though, and I was responsible for NavyX – the RN’s accelerator for experimental autonomous capability. How did it happen?
I’ve always felt that life often comes down to a few moments – and for me, my interview with the RN’s inaugural Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Brigadier Dan Cheesman, was undoubtedly one of them.
That we hit it off is something I’ll always be grateful for. That initial chat prompted a whirlwind 12 months working for a visionary but demanding leader who set me challenges ranging from influencing the early development of the role and function of the CTO to developing processes to rapidly identify and assess disruptive technological capabilities. It was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.
Then, early in January 2019, he sat me down and said one of the team’s suggestions, establishing the RN’s own “start-up” division to buy and test cutting edge equipment, could become a reality. The Defence Transformation Fund was announced by the Defence Secretary and I was asked to write up the fully costed plan and submit it to win funding. And so began my project management of this new division.
Three months later I was welcoming the Defence Secretary at a conference surrounded by 55 pieces of autonomous equipment and a 200-strong audience where he announced the establishment of NavyX – the RN’s Autonomous Accelerator.
With funding secured for three years, my contract – I’d been seconded from my role at BAE Systems – was again extended for a year with the words: “Well, it was your idea, you might as well stay and make it happen.”
We had to hire staff quickly so we chose a select framework contract and I hand-picked my team from a set of candidates. We needed a rainbow team – a multi skilled small group of people capable of handling the unknown we were facing. Again, I returned to consultancy 101; if this was a project, I would conduct interviews and workshops to learn as much as possible about the subject. And we did just that.
NavyX – from idea to impact
Working alongside Commander Sean Trevethan, the Fleet Robotics Officer, the team slowly took shape. While Commander Sean brought in his autonomy expertise and knowledge of the RN’s latest innovative equipment, I took over a lot of the project management – finding an office space, resourcing, writing terms of reference and running the workshops with the help of the new team.
This meant that I ended up in a senior leadership role heading up operations, reporting directly to Captain Chris Ling, the Director of NavyX, and working alongside Commander Sean who became the Programme Manager.
NavyX’s first Operational Experimentation Exercise, REPMUS, was run in Portugal with great success. And the first “product”, the Autonomous Pacific 24, developed for us by a team at BAE Systems Maritime Services and Combat Systems based on their small boat used by the RN, was successfully launched at the 2019 DSEi Expo in London’s Docklands – just six months after we started NavyX.
Several more exercises took place – each time learning more and more on how autonomy can help the sailors and marines during operations. Several office moves later, the team has taken up residence in the Portsmouth Dockyard with a suitably large lit up NavyX sign adorning the entrance, announcing to everyone that it is open for business.
I have since moved roles and taking a step back has helped me understand the huge importance of NavyX. Despite having a small team and comparatively small budget, it has already broken down existing and perceived barriers to move at astonishing pace in a sector which is normally plagued by slow process times, red tape and delayed deliveries.
With technological advances rapidly rendering old processes and services obsolete, the RN is under intense pressure to identify new approaches and tools to be able to compete in this new era of Machine-Speed Warfare. NavyX is playing a pivotal role in this ongoing transformation – at land and at sea – and I am hugely honoured to have played a part of its journey so far.
About the author
Orsolya Patterson is Account Manager for Defence Digital at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
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