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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 28 February 2021

What the defence sector can learn from commercial R&D

Developing commercial technologies like flying taxis and autonomous vehicles set new bars for public procurement. Image courtesy of Joby Aviation
Developing commercial technologies like flying taxis and autonomous vehicles set new bars for public procurement. Image courtesy of Joby Aviation

For as long as I can remember, flying cars have been a staple symbol of the future in science fiction. Today though, they have become a near-reality.

A small number of well-funded start-ups are carrying out test flights of electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft. Some of these start-ups are being backed by major aviation and automotive players, such as Boeing, Airbus and Hyundai. Companies such as Uber, meanwhile, are expecting to operate flying taxis without pilots by around 2030. Furthermore, Tesla, General Motors, Google’s Waymo, Toyota and Honda are all on the cusp of introducing self-driving cars, with real-world testing and regulatory frameworks being explored for traffic-managing the airspace above our busy cities.

The commercial sector is investing heavily in advanced technology, with critical issues, such as an ageing population and city congestion, fast-tracking the shift towards an autonomous future.

While the defence sector has long been renowned for breakthrough innovations, military autonomous systems development, in comparison, has been slow and incremental at best. This huge disparity in commercial versus military investment into research and development could have a cascading effect on the type and quality of autonomous capabilities that are later incorporated into military systems. The national security environment has been affected by rapid technological advancements driven by commercial technology on a wide scale, changing the rules of engagement.

The benefits of autonomous capabilities are undisputed. In fact, when you integrate autonomous capabilities, artificial intelligence and machine learning – as many countries are currently exploring – the opportunities become exponential.

The author is chief executive of EDGE, which is ranked among the top 25 military suppliers in the world, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Pawan Singh / The National
The author is chief executive of EDGE, which is ranked among the top 25 military suppliers in the world, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Pawan Singh / The National

The benefits of autonomous capabilities are undisputed

In a highly competitive market for technologists, roboticists and engineers, the commercial sector excels in attracting the brightest minds and advancing towards real-life testing, while the military sector is still trailing behind. There is a real sense of urgency in shifting towards an autonomous future – and one that the defence sector must embark on faster if it wants to stop finding derivatives and superior technology in the commercial space.

In the military domain, autonomous systems can be leveraged as force multipliers to boost combat power, provide a higher degree of tactical flexibility, increase the safety of frontline soldiers, and save on long-term costs. These benefits are already being observed and appreciated at the lower levels of autonomy with remotely controlled unmanned aerial vehicles and unmanned ground vehicles. These systems have been able to enhance situational awareness capabilities, go to places that we humans cannot to complete previously unattainable missions and even lighten the physical and cognitive workloads of troops.

At the Unmanned Systems and Exhibition and Conference last year, Abu Dhabi Autonomous Systems Investments launched the "Garmousha" – the first UAE-made vertical take-off and landing drone. The company is expected to unveil new autonomous capabilities at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference this week.

Future trends are steering towards inter-operability, where open architecture and modularity are key, and where autonomy with AI, cloud technologies, weaponisation and swarm capabilities are increasingly becoming integral to complex future missions. Network security, cyber resilience and electronic warfare play a critical role, too, as does human collaboration with machines to reduce sorties and ensure the best possible mission outcomes.

The most significant advantage is safety – a reduction in "boots on the ground" and, therefore, soldier casualties. Autonomous systems would replace humans for more dangerous missions, maintaining the overall strength of the force for more critical needs.

From an economic perspective, the reliability, durability, efficiency and affordability of autonomous systems outweigh the advantages of soldiers. Though systems would carry a higher initial cost, it would pale in comparison to the life-cycle cost of soldiers across training, equipment, in-service salary, health care and later veteran care.

And the use of remote-controlled unmanned systems is only the first step. Future unmanned systems will see higher levels of autonomy. Developments in AI and cognitive computing will shape the future of warfare. With advanced technology levelling the playing field, no nation can afford to lag behind in this technological arms race.

The question is not should we, but rather where do we become more autonomous?

In this context, Edge, the UAE’s advanced technology group for defence and beyond, invests extensively in autonomous capabilities coupled with other advanced technologies. It works closely with frontline operators to understand the intricate and intuitive needs of the defence industry and those that can creatively innovate to discover new technologies. Because innovation in the defence sector does not come from technology alone, but also from problem-solving and experience on the battlefield. Edge also builds on advancements made in commercial markets, combining the best of both worlds.

The company invests in a concept and then decides whether to discard it or experiment with it further. It is this very approach – moving with speed and inventing with freedom – that ultimately enables a more agile and secure future.

Faisal Al Bannai is chief executive and managing director of Edge

Updated: February 21, 2021 12:24 PM

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