Ross Wilson, Radar Chief Engineer for Leonardo UK, leads a team who are designing, developing and delivering the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) European Common Radar System Mk2 (ECRS Mk2) for the UK RAF Eurofighter Typhoons. We spoke to him about the challenges and rewards of a job that will help enhance Typhoon for years to come.


Not long into his career Ross Wilson experienced moment of clarity. He had been redesigning the electronic systems for a mid-life upgrade to the Tornado F3 aircraft for 2 years, part of the role involved the execution of a period of flight trials. It’s a month he’s never forgotten.

“That was the time that made me really enthusiastic about my career in electronics. Being involved in the early design and development of an upgraded processor that actually went onto an aircraft was exciting,” says Ross. “I can still remember the day of the trials. I watched the jet come out of the hangar, take off, we were sat in the control room listening to the operations and then, when it landed, we were hands-on able to suck out data and run real-time analysis within minutes. That direct interaction with the RAF has stuck with me ever since. 

“Today, it’s something I keep telling the younger engineers who are starting off their careers. This is an exciting job. We are doing something unique and, knowing where the equipment we develop is in use, we are helping to protect our nations.” 

Ross, whose family has a farming background, studied electronic engineering at the University of Newcastle. He went straight from there to BAE Systems’ electronics division in Milton Keynes, which was later and encompassed by Leonardo. As his career took off, he moved up to Edinburgh taking in other aspects of the radar development, namely getting his designs into production and support phases as well as many research and development activities. 

Ross has been in his current role —looking after UK development programmes for Typhoon — for the past seven years. In September 2020 BAE Systems and Leonardo were awarded a £317 million contract to develop the ECRS Mk2 and today Ross heads the engineering team who have to turn that contract into reality.

Over a span of 20 years my career has taken in all aspects of design and development taking control of the full lifecycle and I have worked across all of the various engineering functions — hardware initially, then software, systems, integration and trials. That gave me the breadth of knowledge I needed to take on the Chief Engineer role for a large programme like ECRS Mk2.”

The Chief Engineer sits alongside the Programme Manager at the head of the programme. The pair are the key day-to-day decision-makers. Between them they are responsible for everything from the bid process, the development lifecycle and design reviews, through to the future test, production and support roll out. 

In addition, the Chief Engineer provides governance as the system design authority as well. “Basically, holding the golden pen, meaning I have the sign off authority from a technical perspective, making sure the design is compliant from a form, fit and functional perspective, safe, and meets all quality standards. Essentially, it’s up to me and the team to get us to a point where we are able to ship the product out of the door and, from a system design point of view, know that it is fit for purpose.” 

A WORLD-LEADING CAPABILITY

The ECRS Mk2 is a multi-functional radar system (MFRS) that in addition to traditional radar functions will deliver a world-leading Electronic Warfare capability, including wide band Electronic Attack. It will equip pilots with the toolset and ability to locate, identify is and suppress enemy air defences using high-powered jamming within a contested and congested environment. They can engage targets whilst beyond the reach
of threats — even when they’re looking in another direction — and operate inside the range of opposing air defences, remaining fully protected throughout. It also enables Typhoon to link up with future data-driven weapons to combat rapidly evolving air defences, ensuring UK Typhoons will dominate the battlespace for years to come.

The development of this ground-breaking radar is a phased process, with Ross’ team providing verifiable evidence at key points to a number of stakeholders, including the end customer and specialist consultants. It’s a process designed to prove the maturity of the technology in a timely manner. 

“We've been achieving maturity points step by step,” he says. “We are being assessed on a Technology Readiness Level [TRL] and Risk basis, which is a slightly different route to contract when compared to previous programmes. Effectively we develop the kit, test it in the lab and prove it works before we go to the next phase. This kind of maturity-based development is good from an engineering perspective and from a customer perspective, because we can continually see the risk reducing.”

This process is also a positive for the younger engineers in the Leonardo team. Unlike their predecessors they get to see a full development cycle pass in a relatively short timeframe, this in addition to many new lessons learnt such as agile software development we enable the engineers to flourish as early as possible. Says Ross: “Breaking it down like this means it often takes just a matter of weeks to carry out a single pass on a function when previously it could have been anything up to five years between developing the whole system and testing it in a flexible manner.”

FUTURE PROOF 

Of course, the most significant challenge facing Ross and the Leonardo team is a technical one. They are inventing, developing and building advanced technology that will have a life beyond Typhoon, as they will mature key technologies for future combat air systems. Ross says the ECRS Mk2 radar has supported the generation of knowledge, expertise and technology that will be further advanced in some of the early development work for the Tempest programme.

What might flow forward?

“The design architecture can’t flow forward as-is but will be further enhanced and some of the functionality provided by the software and systems teams can also be utilised. It's kind of an evolution, we always evolve, innovate and learn from previous systems, something we call spiral development through continuous improvement. But it’s not a one-way system. Some of the early research work on Tempest is currently feeding into ECRS Mk2 and the combined ideas generated will feed future product of tomorrow.

“Effectively we are trying to extract from the future to further enhance ECRS Mk2.”

DEVELOPING THE NEW GENERATION

The ECRS Mk2 contract sustains more than 600 highly skilled jobs, including more than 300 at Leonardo's site in Edinburgh, over 100 electronic warfare specialists at the company’s site in Luton, and 120 engineers at BAE Systems. 

Part of Ross’ role is to pass the torch on to the new generation of engineers. He’s helping bridge the gap between them and the experienced generation.

“There's a need to get younger members of the team up to speed quickly in the most efficient way. We call it a flow in and flow out of knowledge. We’ve been looking at how we transfer knowledge into the current teams and the new generation of engineers, but different generations have different ideas, processes and development mindsets. To facilitate this, we're employing “new ways of working” like Agile Project Development specifically employing different approaches to systems and software that enable us to learn lessons from the past.” 

The role is anything but straightforward. The in tray is stacked full of challenges — one minute he’s asked to look at a technical issue, the next he’s being asked to support an export campaign — but this mix doesn’t faze him. 

Ross says: “Of course, there are challenges but that’s why I'm in the job. I describe it as a constant mix of firefighting, problem-solving, decision-making and politics. It’s about continually resolving problems, jumping from an obscure topic to speaking to the aircrew about how the equipment operates and how far they can see in the sky. The breadth of knowledge and awareness needed to cover everything is vast. Getting your head around that can be tricky sometimes so it’s important to be able to hand things off to the vast SMEs around you.

“On the positive side I get to see the full scale of engineering from conception to completion. That kind of thing gets me out of bed in the morning. The other thing that excites me is the diversity of the people. At one end, we have apprentices coming in the door, at the other we have highly skilled scientists and a multitude of stakeholders from a variety of nations, who understand the system in a totally different way.” Being able to interact with a broad range of people on a daily basis only feeds Ross’ enthusiasm for a job which gets more interesting with every passing day."