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Homepage / Submarine hunter by day, PhD student by night

Submarine hunter by day, PhD student by night


Completing a PhD part-time at Cranfield Defence and Security is allowing me to earn an income while studying and means that I’ve not lost sight of the ‘real world’, which has helped to ground my academic thinking. I chose the PhD as it provided an opportunity to direct my studies into a specific area that intrigues me; one where innovation isn’t constrained by convention.

I began my career in the Royal Navy in 1980, first working full-time flying helicopters on and off ships around the world, then as a part-time reservist from 1993.

I was lucky in my flying career inasmuch as I got to visit many places around the globe. I served in the Mediterranean, the north Atlantic and the Pacific, visiting places such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Panama, and working with partners such as the US Pacific Fleet.

My current role involves working as a helicopter simulator instructor at what we like to call, ‘The University of Merlin’.

Royal Navy aircrew join us at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall for 15 months of air warfare training in how to fly and fight the Merlin Mk 2 ‘submarine hunter’ helicopter. They use the simulator to fly sorties and receive training in everything from radar and maritime surface searches up to high intensity anti-submarine warfare.

The balance between simulator training and flying the real helicopter is about 2:1 ‒ this is important to reduce costs and build awareness so the aircrew can relate scenarios in the simulator to reality. The overwhelming majority of teaching, however, takes place in the simulator with the real aircraft used to confirm the student’s learning.

On a NATO exercise last June in Iceland: we’d been doing some analysis work on an anti-submarine warfare exercise and were just about to have a tour of the submarine that everyone had been hunting for the previous two weeks

I worked at Defence Equipment and Support, a trading entity within the UK Ministry of Defence, between 2004 and 2008, where my work involved buying simulators. I became interested in the procurement procedure for such complex and advanced pieces of training equipment.

I started my PhD in June 2014 and if everything stays on track I hope to finish in June 2019. The general topic is crowdsourcing for procurement with serious games – I’m looking at the possibility of using computer-based games that a range of people across the MOD can play to generate feedback and influence procurement design for items such as tactical displays.

The added benefit of the project is that it can all be done within existing web browser technology, at no extra cost to the MOD. It is highly innovative, with nothing similar currently being pursued in the UK, and is being partly sponsored by the Royal Navy.

Using the control console of the Merlin Mk2 helicopter simulator

Before embarking on my PhD, I completed a Defence Simulation and Modelling MSc at Cranfield, also on a part-time basis, which helped refine my ideas for further study.

Cranfield is so well integrated with the MOD at Shrivenham that it was a natural choice. The University’s Centre for Simulation and Analytics has offered support for my studies, and my PhD topic also links to electronic warfare, so the Electronic Warfare Symposium each year has been useful for networking and learning.

I had to commit to self-funding at the start but the value of the PhD to the MOD has been noted and the last year has been funded through an innovation grant.

Studying part-time and at distance has worked perfectly for me. The resources and support available through Barrington Library and its online presence have meant that I can be based in almost the furthest corner of the Cornwall peninsula and still have access to everything that I need to complete my research with.

At home in Cornwall, overlooking St Michael’s Mount

I would definitely recommend the PhD route for free spirits and obsessive thinkers. If you’re restless and dissatisfied with how things are, then you’ve got to go and find a better way ‒ the Cranfield PhD can give you a team to support your research in finding that ‘better way’.

You can be objective when you’re thinking about doing research; making assessments of financial and time costs, and any pay-off for career prospects, but there’s got to be a personal drive to learn. That’s the most important – a ‘need’ to know more.

Lieutenant Commander Ed Oates

Written By: Cranfield University

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  1. Edward Oates 10/11/2018 at 7:20 pm - Reply

    A short update on the research: The ‘Crowdsourcing’ element of the research has gone well. The browser game running on IE8 hosted in the DII MoD intranet attracted a lot of interest and as people ‘played’ the game they blogged/emailed/phoned in their ideas for improvements to the interface. These have been built in to the game.

    The move from DII to MoDNET intranet caused a bit of a worry, but with a few tweaks to the code the game was soon running on MoDNET IE11. The main loss was the ActiveX component but ‘inspect element’ gave a big help supporting a much better development environment.

    With two versions of the game: Original and Crowdsourced, and 4 game levels to play, I just needed a group of keen people with a deep interest in maritime search. Britannia Royal Naval College is the ideal location for a randomised control trial and that’s the ‘data collection’ stage of the research I’m working on at the moment. Each term, new classes of officer cadets play the game, win Amazon tokens and donate their game play data for the research.

    More news later.

  2. Ed Oates 08/06/2019 at 3:11 pm - Reply

    Six months on from the last update and the data collection is still going. Over 1000 games have been played and their log files saved for analysis.
    Organisational changes have affected this ‘grass roots’ project. MoDNET, the new IT network is now a year old and the incremental deployment has seen the Inspect Element feature of IE11 blocked and the ability to offer folder access to all user accounts is no longer available. But, as one door closes, another opens and I’ve been given access to a web server connected to MoDNET. The game is still available for all, but in a new location.
    The RN Discovery And Rapid Exploitation (DARE) team are supporting the research as an example of innovation in the RN. This is a useful recognition that opens minds to the value of Crowdsourcing and Serious Games.

    Analysis and the Write Up come next!

  3. Edward Oates 12/10/2019 at 12:38 pm - Reply

    The journey continues ….

    A few weeks ago I attended my ’60 Month Review’ with the full Review Panel. All the analyses that I planned to do have been completed with much use of R-Studio. I really like the sparse clarity of the core R charts and visualisations rather than the more colourful, designer-style in ggplot. I hope the Review Panel like them as well !

    The write-up needs to be finalised with the Discussion and Conclusions sections, then there’ll be numerous re-writes and revisions as the thesis incrementally approaches an conclusion. There are lots of pressures at the day job designing a new training course, and with the RNR helping with a project for the Navy Safety Centre, so I really do have to focus on the write-up. The emails offering ‘Shut Up and Write’ sessions at the RPod act as a reminder to get on with it – no chance to attend in person as a part-timer, but good to have the ‘nudge’.

    So, not the end, but perhaps the beginning of the end?

  4. Lt Cdr Sam Hearn 11/11/2019 at 2:33 pm - Reply

    I would like to investigate conducting a PhD with Cranfield. I am currently employed as a Leadership and Management Instructor with the Royal Navy Leadership Academy.

    I completed an MSc L&M this year and now looking to move to the next level in approximately a years time once I have secured funding.

    Do you have an L&M PhD program?

    • Ed Oates 09/12/2019 at 4:31 pm - Reply

      Hello Sam. Many thanks for adding to the blog – I’ll email on MoDNET or if you try you’ll be able to get to me that way. Regards. Ed.

  5. Edward Oates 18/05/2020 at 9:50 am - Reply

    My six years of part-time study ends on 01 June 2020 and I’m not quite there yet. The thesis has all sections populated but not to the quality and standard that I want or that the University requires. The day job cut heavily into any ‘spare’ time I had from August ’19 through to February ’20 and it wasn’t just the time available but the mental capacity as well. The creative output can be seen in the blog on Wargames and their Revival in the Royal Navy, but not in the thesis write-up.

    How has COVID19 affected my studies? As a part-timer, not a lot. I was ‘lucky’ in that I’d completed all the data collection before the government’s restrictions came in, the Barrington Library has so much on-line through Safari and other databases, and the Library Staff are super-responsive to getting me anything else, that being in lock-down was almost a relief. I had to stay home, so giving time to focus on the thesis has been productive and therapeutic at the same time.

    Best wishes to all staff and students through these unusual times. How is anyone else getting on?

  6. Edward Oates 03/12/2020 at 7:38 pm - Reply

    On 29th Nov 2020, I posted the final version of my thesis: “Crowdsourcing with Serious Games for Defence Procurement” on TurnItIn. I really needed those extra 6 months to finish the analysis and write-up and was very grateful for constructive criticism feedback from my Review Panel.

    There’s always something to improve always remembering to explain everything for someone who has come to read the thesis for the first time, not over and over for the past 6 years! A final check of the cross-referencing and those old gotchas: form/from and trial/trail turned up the occasional surprise. So having cleared those up, I really felt it was as good as I could have done.

  7. Edward Oates 24/02/2021 at 11:34 am - Reply

    I’ve joined in with plenty of on-line meetings in the last year, but they’ve all been with people who I’ve met before face-to-face, so the rapport and social/human connection had already been made. The on-line meetings have only had to support an exchange of ideas and not support a deeper understanding of who I was meeting with.

    In Feb 2021, with the Covid lockdown continuing, the Viva was planned as an on-line meeting with an Internal examiner I’d only met briefly when I was studying for my MSc over a decade ago, and an External examiner I’d never met before. How do you prepare to understand people and their perspectives as well as the details of your thesis? Part of the advice my Supervisor had given me during the thesis write-up was to write for those who don’t come from a EW / computer coding / serious games / statistical analysis background. “Don’t assume a level of knowledge”, “Don’t assume second-sight from the reader” and “Explain what you’ve done to collect and analyse the data” were regular comments in our monthly meetings. The other thing I did was to read academic papers where the examiners were listed as authors to try an understand what I’d written from their perspective.

    Come the ‘day of the race’, the internet connection help-up and although it was an unusual experience, I was grateful for the professionalism of all involved, for the clear structure of the meeting, and the methodical progression through the content of the thesis. The thorough preparation by the Chair and Examiners allowed the process to step through the viva so that we all stayed together avoiding any feeling of being left behind or misunderstanding a question. A bit of nervous tension on my part probably helped, as did having a glass of water handy to maintain hydration over the 2 hour discussion.

    The end result? Thesis accepted with minor corrections. A better, more polished final version which has now been re-submitted, and valuable thoughts gained from the Examiners on what further work to do in the near future.

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