A strong supporter of open innovation, managing an annual budget of over 700 million Euro, Marko Erman, 63 years old, has already filed 17 patents and has over 150 publications to his name in scientific journals or congresses. A graduate of École Polytechnique and Télécom ParisTech (ENST), he held different posts in the Philips electronics labs (LEP) from 1982 to 1991, before moving to Alcatel. He first joined the Thales group in 2003, as Director of Research and Technology in the land and inter-army division. In 2009, Marko Erman took on the role of R&T Director for the whole group. One of his principles: to push the boundaries and break down barriers. These being the words he proclaimed to his troops during the Thales Innovation congress, held from the 1 to 3 March this year.
Le Journal de l'Aviation: How do the principles of open innovation translate into aerospace research?
Marko Erman: In this sector it's easy to create open innovation, with Technology Research Institutes (TRIs) or innovation centres, for example. With this type of stakeholders, it can be defined as multi-partner collaborative research. Depending on the subjects, we're located at different points on the value chain: parts manufacturer when it's an aircraft programme, systems integrator when we're talking about air traffic management. I've reorganised the R&T governance to make it cross-disciplinary, by saying that aircraft technology doesn't just belong to aeronautics, but may interest other professions within the group. We've also institutionalised our cooperation with the academic world to avoid duplicating or scattering projects. For example, we have a unique framework agreement with CNRS. We've also created networks with start-ups. Thales is, alongside Airbus, one of the founding members of the aeronautic incubator Starburst Accelerator.
What is the advantage of turning to start-ups for a group like Thales, which already has 25,000 researchers and engineers dedicated to innovation?
A great advantage! By accompanying an incubator like Starburst Accelerator, we can find innovative technologies or services that we couldn't have brought to life within the group. Such an incubator, with its international network, helps us to choose from the 300,000 start-ups that are born every year, 100,000 of them in China alone. Once we've made that selection, we can work together on proof of concept. I must say that with Starburst we have a very high transformation rate, of around one third. We also work with some platforms at Saclay, the spin-offs in France.
In which other countries do you find innovative start-ups?
Mainly in the United States. We're working at MIT, for example, with the Explorer incubator, particularly specialised in business models, where we find a lot of solutions in the sphere of avionics, especially where the proposal of new services arising from avionic data (passenger satisfaction, MRO, etc...) is concerned. In Silicon Valley, we work above all on cybersecurity. Moreover, if everything goes well, we're going to open a new structure on-site during the course of this year, called xPlor.
What are the big lines of innovation in the aerospace world for Thales?
We can mention cockpit digitisation, to favour improved ergonomics and optimisation of flight planning. Then there is everything to do with electrical connectors, on-board Wi-Fi, internet connection, etc. Likewise, there are all of the new technologies to optimise air traffic management, particularly with the virtual control tower. The common ground connecting all of these areas is obviously digital technology. And behind it, there is a lot of work in the area of securing these new systems and adapting them for use in aircraft.
What are the roles of the innovation hubs that you've set up?
There are around twenty and they work on different subjects: air traffic management, cockpits, etc. Their role is to produce the co-design in collaboration with the end users, as they are the main players of these hubs. For instance, we've been working on securing airports in order to design a solution together with our clients that is suited to their needs, with a digital model. This model can simulate a crowd of up to 50,000 people and establish realistic behaviour in order to play out scenarios and analyse how the system reacts. The system allows us to detect whether behaviour is aggressive, dangerous, neutral or friendly. We can do that in just a few days instead of the previous waiting period of several months. The advantage is that the client can immediately intervene if we take the wrong direction in the design of a new solution.