Britain's most successful engineer Sir James Dyson is taking on Google and Facebook with a $2.5bn investment to turn the former RAF base at Hullavington near Malmesbury into a research campus for robotics, AI, and other advanced technology, including batteries and vision systems.
The size of the planned facility dwarfs the existing HQ.
The investment marks both a change of direction for Dyson, which will now begin to challenge US data giants in the race to find practical implementations of AI, and expresses a vote of confidence in a post-EU British economy. The founder recently hinted that it was examining how to incorporate pattern recognition and decision making into its 360 Eye robot vacuum cleaner.
Dyson already employs over 2,000 staff at its existing Malmesbury HQ, where many of its 3,000 engineers are based. Only last year Dyson completed a £250m expansion of the HQ to 56 acres. The company expects to employ an additional 5,000 staff and bring in £4bn of annual revenue by 2020. It currently banks £1.5bn annually. The RAF site covers 517 acres.
Sir James found himself publicly vilified when he backed the campaign for the UK to leave the European Union last year. Dyson argued that Europe's supposedly neutral legal processes were in reality rigged in favour of German manufacturers that produce less efficient products.
In several ways, it turns out.
Several of Dyson's hallmark products are more energy efficient because they use more power for a shorter period than conventional products on the market, some of which are made by German rivals including Bosch and Siemens. But the EU's energy labelling regulations decree that voltage, not real-life energy consumption, is what matters.
Even Remain supporters, like this commenter on a Times article, applauded Dyson.
Dyson also contended that testing only new, pristine vacuum cleaners also removed one of its key competitive advantages. The General Court of the European Union even agreed that this was daft, but produced a perverse verdict claiming that the European Commission was not at fault since Dyson could not devise an alternative set of tests that were reproducible.
Dyson is appealing against this at the ECJ, arguing (among other things) that it misrepresented his challenge, and failed to give him a chance to present his evidence.
Thirdly, and in a case that echoes the diesel emissions scandal, Dyson discovered that German rivals lower their power consumption when running an EU test, but double their power output in real-life use.
"Bosch has installed control electronics into some of its machines to wrongfully increase energy consumption when in use – to cheat the EU energy label," Dyson said in 2015. "Their behaviour is akin to that seen in the Volkswagen scandal."
The RAF acquired the land in 1935 and it performed many training functions until 1995. The site continued to be used as an airfield until last year, but was when it was released by the MoD.
Given Sir James's battles in an industrial landscape dominated by German interests, it isn't hard to see why Britain's leading technology exporter fancies his prospects outside the European Union.
He wants a level playing field. And they don't come much more level than an old airfield. ®