With the rise of international terrorism and cyber warfare, military requirements are more complex than ever.

In response, the way countries build military systems must change too. The Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA) is looking at new approaches like design thinking to develop systems and technologies for the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

GovInsider caught up with Gan Hwee Yee, Project Lead in the Land Systems Programme Centre of DSTA, where she manages chemical, biological, radiological and medical-related projects.

Design for the armed forces

Gan’s job begins right from understanding soldiers’ needs to acquiring systems and integrating them. Design innovation can help soldiers perform better with existing resources, she believes. DSTA’s role is “not just delivering technical solutions” to the SAF, rather it is “designing solutions with the end users’ needs in mind”, she says.

These solutions can be simple, but even the slightest improvements can be impactful. For example, Gan tweaked the design of defibrillators used by military personnel to improve medical response times. “Every second counts when you need to save a life,” she says.

In the off-the-shelf defibrillators, voice instructions are activated upon startup of the system. Taking into consideration the sense of urgency when using a defibrillator as well as scenarios where noise is a factor for users, Hwee Yee and her team worked with the supplier to add instruction and warning labels, providing users with clear visual aids – a small, cost-effective change that could potentially help save lives. “One look and I know how to react,” she adds.

Beyond Gan’s team, DSTA plans to deepen the use of design thinking in projects. It has developed a “design thinking toolkit” for IT projects, looking to provide engineers with skills to implement this new approach. One of the early projects to use elements of design thinking was a learning portal for military instructors, trainees and commanders.

Early prototypes of the learning portal were for the first time shared with instructors before the system was finalised. Trainers voted on the best design elements, which were later incorporated into the final product. This feedback and improved design reduced the need for user training when the portal was launched later, the IT team reported.

Training simulation

MSTC

Another new approach in DSTA is to use simulations for more realistic and effective training. With Singapore’s limited land, the SAF cannot always set up dedicated camps for all kinds of training. “As defence engineers, we see technology as a force multiplier,” Gan says. “It can help to overcome Singapore’s unique constraints in terms of manpower and land space.”

Gan and her team developed a simulation centre to train military doctors, nurses and medics. The new centre provides more “realistic operating environments” as opposed to training limited to a classroom environment, Gan says.

Working together with the SAF Medical Corps, Gan and her team designed a centre that can be customised to simulate up to six different training scenarios simultaneously. These include jungle operations, urban combat and an operating theatre in a combat-support hospital – each posing unique challenges to trainees.

The team introduced a patient simulator with more advanced and crucial features like, bleeding limbs and pupillary reaction. It can also “automatically register the type, amount and speed of drug administered by the trainee,” Gan adds. All of these reactions are wirelessly monitored by instructors in a separate control centre, where they can also view a live feed of the training session.

All of this work is made possible by the multidisciplinary skills in Gan’s team. While Gan is trained in bioengineering, her team members are professionals in civil engineering and information technology. It was thus “challenging to lead and manage a multidisciplinary team”, she feels. “As a project lead, I need to level up my knowledge on, for example, building infra, sound transmission and even procurement,” she says.

Military culture is typically known for rigid hierarchies and strict discipline. But Singapore’s defence technologists show that flexibility of mind, and empathy, are also crucial.

Gan Hwee Yee received the Gold award for her work as an ‘Innovation Champion’ in the Singapore Public Service in 2016. GovInsider is writing a series with PS21 on the award winners.

Image of simulation centre by Ministry of Defence, Singapore