Futureworx’s Jamie Fenton: building a career on the edge of aerospace innovation
Jamie Fenton, a principal architect with Futureworx, shares his lifelong passion for helicopters and engineering, and explains how Marshall’s venture-building arm is engaged in ground-breaking work around the development of uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs).
How would you describe your current role?
I am a principal architect for Marshall Futureworx. I'm leading a project called the heavy lift uncrewed aircraft system (HLUAS).
Architect is quite a fancy job title. How would you define it?
Good question! At Futureworx, we’re trying to differentiate ourselves from a conventional aerospace company as we don’t necessarily operate in the aerospace industry and we are pushing boundaries. So the role is different to “engineer” but essentially, we’re trying to develop novel solutions to the planet’s most pressing issues.
What drew you to work for Futureworx?
Having worked for Marshall previously, I knew that Futureworx had some interesting projects on the go. I approached Kieren Paterson, the managing director. Kieren explained the Futureworx mission to me and then I went through the formal process to apply for a role.
I was attracted to Futureworx because it's a really smart team of people. And they've got the freedom to explore challenges facing society today (and tomorrow) then try to find novel ways of solving or alleviating them. We are trying to think differently and not do things as they've always been done before. That potential to innovate attracted me.
You’ve mentioned working for Marshall in the past. Could you tell us more about your career and your time at Marshall?
After graduating, my first job was with Westland Helicopters, which is down in Yeovil. I worked in the design office for the Merlin helicopter, which is a large, multi-role naval helicopter.
After five years there, I identified an opportunity within a company called QinetiQ, near Salisbury. QinetiQ performs flight testing for all the UK military aircraft. It really appealed to me because it was hands-on, practical testing of equipment and aircraft. I secured a job as a flight test engineer working on the Merlin Mk II helicopter. I spent the next five and a half years flight testing helicopters and really enjoyed it.
After my wife and I had our first child, we wanted to be closer to family – and as my wife is from Cambridge, I started researching companies in this area. Marshall Aerospace obviously came up.
I worked here for the first three years as a design engineer on an auxiliary fuel system for a large aircraft type – and then I got offered a role as an airworthiness engineer.
At the time we were doing a lot of modifications to the C-130J for the Royal Air Force, so I did a lot of certification work. And then just before the pandemic struck, I was offered the role of head of technical services for Marshall Aerospace. I loved that role.
I left Marshall after being approached by a startup at the start of 2022 who needed some airworthiness expertise to try and get a novel aerospace product certified. It felt like an opportunity I couldn’t turn down – but I chose to come back to Marshall in 2023.
Your whole career has been in aerospace. Was it a childhood ambition to work in this field?
Yes – in fact, I can pinpoint it to an exact day in the mid-‘80s. We went on holiday as a family to the Lake District and we were walking along a path near Ullswater when a Royal Air Force Westland Wessex landed pretty much right next to us in a field. The crew got out and wandered over to the café in Glenridding.
I'd never seen a helicopter up close before. I was fascinated by the size of it, the noise, the vibration, the power. The rest of the family waited for me while I went to get a closer look, within touching distance. That would never happen today because air safety management is so stringent. But back then, I spent ages trying to understand how it worked and how it was put together. I just couldn't get my head around how such a heavy, ugly chunk of metal could get airborne. I was struck by how this machine had the potential to rescue people from perilous situations.
From that one encounter, I knew I wanted to know more about how aircraft work. I read as much as I could, and decided that I needed to go and study aerospace engineering.
What is it about engineering that you have always enjoyed?
What is so exciting about engineering is taking a blank canvas and turning it into something that can fly.
I think engineers are motivated by seeing the progress from requirements written down in words to an end product that flies.
I don’t think I will ever get bored of that.
You’re working with UAVs (uncrewed aerial vehicles), which is a relatively new field. What’s that like?
The aim of our HLUAS project is to develop a system that can vertically lift a heavy payload, transport over an extended distance, and then land safely.
If you look at what’s happening in Ukraine, it’s clear that there is a gap in the market for an uncrewed aircraft that can handle such payloads. So water, medicine, blood, fuel, food and ammunition are all potential cargo. But we’re also talking to civil port authorities.
When you’re dealing with UAVs, there is very little precedent to fall back on, and in some areas the regulation is lacking so you can't rely on what's gone before to give you direction on what to do in the future.
There are loads of small UAV developers out there, often with no aerospace background, coming up with a design in their shed and running with it.
This feels the polar opposite to Marshall Aerospace who deeply understand regulation and, in fact, in some cases have steered regulation, and have decades of experience on large aircraft.
I feel like this project is joining those dots and bringing our depth of aerospace experience to play, but with the freedom of being able to develop a system from scratch.
We’re definitely in a race. There are lots of organisations who have spotted the opportunity in the market – so if we don’t get there quickly, someone else will.
To learn about how Marshall Futureworx accelerates ingenuity by harnessing emerging global trends, technology and partnership opportunities, click here.