May 2009 - Jamie Farmer Interview

Mil/Aero Insider: May 2009

Interview with Jamie Farmer

Managing Director / Business Leader Applied Image Processing
GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms

What is your business about?
Our business is about rugged, real time applied image processing. What does applied image processing mean? Well, it comes down to understanding our customers' needs for extracting information from video images in real world situations. Typically, this may mean detecting and tracking many moving targets from a camera mounted in an electro-optical head, or maybe stabilizing shaky UAV footage in real time, or fusing images from different sensor types to get a clearer view of what's going on. Talking of clearer views, we can take multiple video streams and combine them into a seamless panorama, so an user can see what's happening all around them from within a protected location, like a vehicle. We can then get really clever, and combine some of these features together. In the end, it all comes down to the specific problem our customer is trying to solve for the user of the equipment.

What are your channels to market?
Ours is primarily an OEM business. Our target customer is an OEM, who will very often be a Tier Two or Tier Three defense contractor, and who needs to include a complex or sophisticated image processing capability in his system – but doesn't wish to make the enormous investment in gaining the image processing expertise himself. We are able to work extensively with him to understand the requirement and to engineer/embed our solutions into his system: for the most part, our contribution will be invisible from the outside, but its function will be highly valuable to the user. Typically, we will work with customers to develop a prototype, and then an initial production run. We'd then expect to move to volume production which may last for a number of years, producing hundreds or even thousands of units during the lifetime of the contract.

Our relationship with our customers revolves around a technology partnership, where we engage our experts with their experts. Our project staff comprises highly respected engineers with deep knowledge of image processing applications, while our customer knows what they are trying to achieve. By working together closely, we ensure that the ultimate user gets a highly effective solution.

How do you see your areas of expertise?
What is it that we believe we're good at? Two things above all else (1) extracting and presenting critical information from video images and (2) packaging this capability into a practical solution; that is, that fits in the space it needs to, performs as it needs to, and costs what it needs to. We have got to this point by building teams focused on developing high efficiency algorithms, embedded hardware and real-time software.

At the technical level, this means staying close to the latest developments in component technology. The potential offered by the latest generations of familiar devices such as FPGAs and DSPs needs to be transitioned in new product variants rapidly, while judging the right moment to jump into newer device classes such as multi-core processors. Flexibility and responsiveness in our engineering approach comes from adopting the latest practices in model-based design. In essence, this means separating design from implementation, allowing us to take a clear-headed approach to the former, and be ruthlessly efficient about the latter.

What we've developed as a business over the past twenty years is a deep understanding of electro-optical systems – platforms, interfaces, sensors and so on. We've worked on numerous programs, including some highly prestigious ones, and we're able to bring that experience and expertise to bear for the benefit of new customers. Invariably, our customers appreciate our deep systems knowledge – this allows us to be a much stronger contributor to the complex programmes they are working on.

Would you describe yourselves as a COTS business?
We've developed what we'd describe as a set of common cores – like our ADEPT video tracker family. The implication of that is that, for virtually every problem we encounter, we have a good starting point in hardware, software and algorithms. We don't need to try to solve every problem from scratch – and that gives our customers important advantages in terms of time, price and long term cost of ownership. Each of our solutions starts life as a COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) product – if necessary, we then go on to adapt it to the customer's precise requirements. We do supply off-the-shelf hardware – but that's not the focus of our business. Instead we concentrate on delivering user functionality. By employing a COTS base platform, we can rapidly deliver highly optimised solutions built from a rugged and reliable foundation. We exploit the flexibility of our hardware and software architectures to provide the unique functionality or embedded performance that our customers are looking for. This results in a much “tighter” solution than you'd get by concocting a system from generic hardware parts. You could call it a holistic view – after all, the real value we add comes from our application knowledge.

What are you seeing in the marketplace?
At the moment we are seeing a strong shift towards smaller form factor solutions – away from larger established formats such as 6U VME. Removing a crate from a vehicle helps with space, weight and power requirements – SWAP in fact. Things are getting smaller, as they inevitably do, with electro-optical gimbals. We are seeing increasing demand by the gimbal suppliers for image processing electronics that fits inside the gimbal itself. We are also seeing strong demand for new functions, such as panoramic vision for Situational Awareness applications.

What are you looking to change about your business?
Something we know we need to do is to make our offer more accessible. By that, I mean we need to communicate more clearly what it is that we're capable of, what expertise we have, what solution elements we can bring. In other words, we need to ensure that prospective customers get a crystal clear picture of both what we do, and how we do it. This helps in getting the relationship off to a flying start, and saves time and money on both sides.

We're in a good place at present. Our market is a healthy one, as electro-optical systems are a real focus for the military at present – and our presence in it continues to develop. We've seen very strong growth in the past few years – but that isn't making us complacent. There is still plenty we need to do.

Short term, our focus is on operational excellence. We think we can serve our existing markets even more effectively, and we need to maintain our focus on ensuring that both our customer service and our product quality are at the highest level. Beyond that, we'll be looking at how we can begin to serve market opportunities that are adjacent to where we are now.

We also know we have a lot of work to do in positioning ourselves as the “go to people” when customers are looking around for solutions to their applied image processing problems. Our reputation with our existing customers is excellent: we need to make sure that companies we haven't worked with before are just as aware of what we can do. Historically, we've tended to hide our light under a bushel – and that needs to change: we need to attract a wider audience, and we'll do that by both bringing our current offerings to new customers, and by broadening the portfolio of applications we can serve.

What are your ambitions for the business?
One of my ambitions for the business is that we continue to exercise our ability to work closely with our customer's implementation teams, to understand his business, his problems and his goals – if anything, we need to move from caring about it to becoming obsessive about it. That kind of deep knowledge has served us well in the past, and will continue to do so in the future.

Another ambition is to deliver continuous improvements in our operational capabilities. Our success over the past few years has seen us shipping increasing volumes, and we have learned some lessons about what it takes to become a trusted supplier. Now, however, our quality – in terms of customer support, in terms of product, in terms of ensuring that we do what we say we will – is much closer to where I want it to be, and that improvement has been acknowledged by many of our major customers who say that our quality standards are now up with the best. We need to ensure we don't take our eye off the ball.

A third ambition for the business is to accelerate our progress and investment in technology development. The expertise we can call on in-house is the envy of our competitors – and we can also call on resources from other parts of the business, as well as learning from our interactions with the wider technical community. As we continue to grow, our expectations of the fuel of that growth – our technology cores – go up and up. We need to be thinking about solving more needs, more comprehensively and with ever greater efficiency. This may seem daunting, but with the team of people we are building, I'm confident we can get there.

Do you see yourselves serving new markets in the future?
Yes, we really believe that there are many more people out there that we can help, both in and outside our focal point of military and aerospace. We currently operate near the boundary with non-military commercial markets, so we're well placed for deeper forays into this territory. We'll also be led by the needs of our OEM customers: if they see market opportunities beyond the ones they serve today, we'll be looking to support them.

Historically, we've specialized in video tracking, and that's certainly a core competence. We developed that competence, and we now have a real strength in something I mentioned earlier - image fusion: that's the ability to take input from more than one source, overlay one on the other and create a combined image that provides much more information than the information available from a single sensor. We might, for example, overlay the information from a visible image camera with information from an infrared camera – this can help in highlighting points of interest in difficult viewing conditions, in other words, providing meaningful information, and hence real value to the user. Now, we're starting to take that another step further with the development of multi-sensor systems that can deliver superior situational awareness beyond the normal field of vision – something that's of huge interest to the armed forces. We can take the input from multiple cameras, creating a 360º panoramic view – we can then apply our real time image analysis and data extraction tools to this enhanced view.

That sounds like an exciting application

Yes. It is something that has been a technology aspiration for some time, but has recently gained market momentum, driven by operational requirements and lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan. We have been demonstrating a Distributed Aperature Sensor system for nearly three years now. In this time, we have learned a lot about application requirements and are responding with product offerings that will appear shortly. Like with our trackers, we are taking a “real-world” approach to issues such as choice of sensor interfaces, number of sensors, practical user interfaces, SWaP considerations, output display arrangements and a host of other factors. This means that we not only have a system that looks impressive in the lab, it can also be used in vehicles that exist today. This is a tremendously exciting new technology for us, and we've been overwhelmed by the positive feedback we've received so far.

How do you leverage what the rest of GE has to offer?
As I said, we have in-house technology and engineering resource that is second to none in our industry – but we're also able to call on other parts of GE for expertise or technology that we don't have. An example is the growing requirement from our customers to be able to accommodate our solutions in a VPX chassis. VPX isn't something we have a lot of experience with – but our colleagues in the single board computer business certainly do, and we're able to leverage that. Beyond that, GE is, according to the recent Fortune magazine survey, one of the most respected companies in the world. Its huge momentum of technology development has allowed it build resources such as the GE Global Research Center organization. Working with the GRC allows us, for example, to add new technology cores to, as I mentioned earlier, solve more application challenges.

What do you believe your customers want from you?
There is little doubt in my mind that what our customers want most is that we make their lives easier. It is certainly true throughout the defense industry that, as programs become larger, more complex and more sophisticated, the prime contractors - who are our customers – need to focus their energy, time and resource on high level strategic, interoperability and integration issues. What they specifically don't want any more is to be working at the subsystem level or the subsystem subsystem level, dealing with nitty gritty issues – it just takes too long and costs too much. They want to put the integration of those subsystems into the hands of capable suppliers, and trust those suppliers to do what they say they will. They want us to inspire confidence, to be extremely competent at embedding our technology seamlessly within their solution. They want us to have strong project management skills so that we do what we say we'll do, when we say we'll do it.

We know that what we need to do is to build long term relationships in which challenges are shared, not owned separately. At the end of the day, the customer needs to be happy, and we need to do whatever it takes to ensure that he is.