Business Hour

Chief Technologist for BAE Systems Julia Sutcliffe talks about her career journey and how the company is embracing its commitment to net zero, writes Gail Bailey

In 2021 BAE Systems, like many others, joined the United Nations ‘Race to Zero’ campaign, committing to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions across its operations by 2030 and across the wider supply chain by 2050.

Julia Sutcliffe, who holds a degree in physics and a PhD in Quantum Mechanics joined BAE Systems originally at their Bristol office as part of the Advanced Technology Group and has been involved in the company on a global scale: “I was researching AI and robotics before moving to the Australian arm of the business where I spent about 10 years,” she explains.

In Australia Julia worked primarily on the development of unmanned aircraft systems and was involved in flight testing in an array of places across the country. This included working at the largest test-range in the western world, Woomera Test Range in the remote South Australian desert.

On returning to the UK, Julia became part of the strategic team and initially joined the unmanned aircraft division in Warton where the Taranis unmanned combat aircraft was developed. Here she was working with the MOD and some of the UK’s leading scientists, aerodynamicists and engineers.

Becoming Head of Engineering, which included the development of simulators and the next generation of training facilities, and now Chief Technologist for the Air Sector, Julia is excited about what the fourth Industrial Revolution (digital technology) now means for the sector especially with the confluence of the Green Revolution: “There has been an acceleration in technology over the years and I have seen how quantum sensing, AI, robotics and advanced manufacturing have matured over time. Technologies being developed in Warton are helping to drive increased use of synthetics and simulation with our customers, helping to save carbon emissions.”

One example is making greater use of high-fidelity synthetics and VR to train pilots, and this has had a significant impact on the carbon footprint today. In 2020 BAE delivered over 9,000 training events at RAF bases, which represented nearly 13,000 flying hours conducted virtually. This saved around 75 million litres of aviation fuel – equivalent to 184,000 tonnes of CO2.

“We are taking a whole industry approach to make fundamental changes,” Julia explains. “We have already invested in a solar farm in Samlesbury, the size of eight football pitches, which has reduced in the region of 5000 tonnes of carbon emissions to date. At Warton we are creating the ‘factory of the future’ using technology, augmented reality and working closely with blue chip companies and university partners to help achieve this.”

A further example Julia provides is the progress being made in 3D printing, or additive layer manufacturing: “This technique enables us to be very precise in terms of the design that can be generated – leading to much less raw material being used. Making a large engine mount for a Typhoon aircraft that used to take 100 weeks can now be completed in just 60 days!”

Investing in the design of leaner, lighter products with a low carbon footprint is high on the agenda and a big part of Julia’s role. The creation of innovative products that use alternative fuels, propulsion, battery sources, electrification and hydrogen fuel cells is central to this. The new PHASA-35®, a high-altitude long endurance solar powered vehicle, which can operate within the stratosphere for 12 months without landing or refuelling, is a further example of current innovation. A persistent, low carbon asset that weighs just 150kg.

As Julia says: “Ultimately, we will create solutions that align with net-zero, but meet our customers operational performance demands. It isn’t just about what we’re doing, it’s about how we are doing it – we have to be faster and be prepared to look at things differently. Community and working collaboratively is key.

“Everyone is inspired by the net-zero agenda as we know it’s the right thing to do. We launched the ‘Big Switch’ campaign last year which encouraged employees to make a lifestyle change and have also launched a new Masters-level sustainability apprenticeship with Cranfield University – this will play a key role in building a network of sustainability champions across the company who will help to progress the race to zero campaign.”

Julia says it is difficult to pinpoint a single event that drew her into a career in engineering: “I have always been inspired by the opportunity to create and innovate and do something that will make a difference. Twenty years ago, I was working on things that seemed so far advanced, which have now become mainstream. Our government is aiming for the UK to become a science and technology superpower which is an inspiring baseline and a fantastic opportunity for young people to become involved.

“Achieving net zero is about teamwork and partnerships – we need to take everyone with us,” Julia says. “It is the biggest change that we have ever seen and affects every facet of our lives – we are part of a moment in history and there has never been a more exciting time to be an engineer.”

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