Can commercial AI solutions meet evolving military need?

26 March 2021

Technology development in the commercial sector significantly outpaces the defence industry, with UK Government funding of defence research and development (R&D) in 2018 totalling £1.2 billion while expenditure on R&D performed by UK businesses reached £25.0 billion in the same year. With higher budgets and a larger target market which has a constant hunger for next gen technology, the commercial sector is ideally placed to invest in R&D into the latest artificial intelligence technologies.

AI applications in the defence industry currently includes the use of drones and human supervised automated weapon systems which help provide field forces with greater range, coordination and speed, while helping protect the warfighter. This automation of a platform enhances its performance and allows operations to become easier, while enabling crucial resources to be focused in other areas.  

In fact, Ben Wallace, UK Secretary of State for Defence, recently hinted that armed forces would use autonomous weaponry to fight future wars, rather than large troop deployments. This use of technology would also help fill the recruitment and skills gap faced by the forces, and reflect the changing nature of warfare as we move towards avoiding direct conflict with adversaries.

With the UK Government’s announcement of a £16bn boost for the Ministry of Defence (MOD) in November 2020, now is the time for the defence industry to look to commercial sector technology and how it can be applied to our industry to help enhance the efficiency of the armed forces.

Innovation inspiration

The commercial technology market is a driving force of innovation, investment and ideas that often trickle down into industry and defence. This has seen technology and artificial intelligence (AI) become part of everyday life, with cars parking themselves and the rise of the smart home, and in the defence industry, the exploration of unmanned vehicles and platforms.

But too often, we don’t look to our colleagues in the commercial and industrial sectors for inspiration or technology which could be utilised in the defence industry to help keep personnel safe and act as a force multiplier. For example, real-time monitoring of the condition of troops in the field or out on field trials would offer an important insight into the physical condition and mental burden placed on personnel. This is why we’ve kept a close watch on the technological developments in this area, which could meet the needs of the military today and into the future.

One example of this from the commercial space is from the UK creators of the UtterBerry™ System, which consists of a collection of miniature, artificially intelligent, ultra-low power sensors. The system is currently used for real-time monitoring of the physical movement, stresses and use of key infrastructure including bridges and tunnels. For example, the sensor technology can highlight if building works underneath a bridge has impacted its foundations and therefore caused a movement in the structure, which would not be visible to the human eye.

It can also enable smart hospitals and agriculture through the real-time monitoring and locating of physical objects such as farming equipment. Although yet to be used in the defence industry, the technology has many applications that could be beneficial to the armed forces.

This ability to gather real-time accurate data across a variety of parameters and mediums is vital for the defence industry, where we’re always looking for methods of managing the masses of data to build an accurate and full picture of the operational environment.

Take for example field training or the operational environment, Utterberry sensors could be fitted to personnel to monitor for muscle fatigue, sweat, general fitness and stressors. The sensors can also raise alerts based on set criteria, such as a sensor being stationary for longer than a specific period. This can be relayed live back to a field base, or for training purposes, downloaded at the end of the session. This provides crucial insight into the burden placed on personnel and their condition in a range of environments which could be used to inform training and operational planning.

Added to this, the technology could also - in a similar way - help shape the rehabilitation programmes for veterans in medical facilities to enable a quicker and better recovery. 

Speed of decision making

It’s clear that data compiled through AI in this space would allow training programmes to be adjusted and in field operations enhanced to protect the health of the warfighter and efficiency of the operation.

AI could also allow troops’ reactions to be predicted based on real data. This would provide crucial insight into how operations can be affected by outside factors and tactical planning. Enabling more effective and tactical deployment of current troops, this would help provide crucial time for addressing the ongoing recruitment and skills gap.

Beyond monitoring the health of personnel, the technology could also be used for surveillance purposes to monitor traffic and movement in crucial areas. This could act as a warning system for operational leads, allowing for course corrections to be made quickly and efficiently based on real-time data that provides a more accurate picture of the combat environment.

Commercial technology development outpaces development in the defence industry, especially at a time when budgets are stretched and the need for innovation is pressing. Now is the time for the defence industry to adapt and work more closely with peers in the commercial sector to develop new capabilities based on proven technology because, as someone once said, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

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