Innovation in France’s MoD

France’s Ministry of the Armed Forces yesterday launched its innovation, transformation and modernisation strategy backed by a 2018 research and development (R&D) budget of €4.67bn of which €723m is earmarked for upstream studies.

Florence Parly listening to the inventor of the Auxylium radio/smartphone system which is now deployed with the soldiers on Operation Sentinelle (photo credit: Christina Mackenzie)

Florence Parly, the minister, has been an advocate of innovation since taking up her post last June. Visiting the ministry’s cybersecurity centre in Bruz (western France) last week, she said “What I’ve seen here is the spirit of audacity that I want to see blow throughout the ministry” and in August 2019 at the MEDEF (Mouvement des entreprises de France) employer federation’s annual summer meeting (université de la défense du MEDEF”) she remarked that “in our struggle for security and freedom, France’s innovation and manufacturers are choice weapons, powerful and respected weapons.

So, it was with genuine interest that Parly visited the “participative innovation” exhibition organised within the walls of the Defence Ministry yesterday. Clearly more at ease in her role of Minister of the Armed Forces than she was before the summer, Parly laughed and joked with the ministry personnel whose audacious ideas for improving processes or equipment have led to prototypes, and, in some cases, to industrialisation.

General Pierre Schanne, head of the participative innovation mission at the DGA (the ministry’s procurement agency), told media prior to Parly’s visit that the 40 inventions on show had been developed by people who were not professional inventors “but who’d had an idea to solve a problem on the ground.” 

Set up more than 30 years ago, this participative innovation scheme offers financial, legal, technical and moral support to the amateur inventors who get, on average, €30,000 for their project. Over the years more than 1,600 inventors have been accompanied on more than 1,400 projects of which over 750 have been finalised. Schanne explained that some 100 projects are submitted every year, of which about 50 are chosen as being viable and of these about half lead to a prototype. In 50% of the cases the prototype is developed with the help of a manufacturer but in cases where the product is actually industrialised then 98% involve a manufacturer.

One of the inventions which has been deployed and which is produced entirely within the ministry with no civilians or manufacturer involved is RAKOON (recherche aéroportée kit opérationnel d’observation nomade). This system, designed, amongst others, by Regimental Sergeant-Major ‘Joseph’ of the 13th Parachute Dragoon Regiment allows special forces operatives whose main job is observation to see on a tablet what they would normally see through the lens of their cameras, binoculars and monoculars. As Joseph explained, the person behind the lens is in great danger of being shot at because the glass of the lenses can be detected by enemy forces. RAKOON solves that problem. He told me that he has used the system in operation and that it was much more comfortable psychologically knowing that even if the observation equipment was shot at, he was in relative safety. The development team got €20,000 in 2013 and were helped by the DETMAT (Détachement du matériel) in Tulle (central France), an army industrial research centre, and the Institut Saint-Louis, a Franco-German defence research laboratory.

Florence Parly posed many questions to Dr Nicolas, the inventor of the textile tourniquet (photo credit: Christina Mackenzie)

Amongst the other inventions on show were an experimental textile tourniquet which is pre-positioned (and should eventually be integrated into the clothing) and can be tightened simply by pulling down on a flap; a system to make it easier to remove the brakes from a heavy goods vehicle which is being industrialised; a system for taking photos from a helicopter and producing a map on non-tearable paper all within four hours, and many others which sadly we did not have the time to investigate.