Implications of Robotics and AI on the Defense Sector

by Asif Anwar, Director at Strategy Analytics

Strategy Analytics will be speaking at the Automation AI and Robotics Forum, which will drill down into the exciting new areas of automation and AI, and examine how organisations are grappling with the challenges and opportunities they are presenting in relationships with their customers. Delegates at the event will hear from global experts, leading edge technology companies and also from organisations implementing automation and AI strategies in the field of customer engagement. Strategy Analytics will discuss the implications of robotics and AI on the defense sector, looking specifically at the increasing use of robotics, in the form of unmanned systems in the defense sector, the impact of a contested and congested RF spectrum of operations upon radar, electronic warfare and communications systems, and the role that AI will play to provide differentiation on the battlefield.

The success of unmanned aerial systems in providing real-time information to military commanders has contributed to both mission effectiveness and in protecting personnel. An expansion of the mission envelope beyond ISR will help drive continued demand for UAS platforms in this realm and this is being paralleled at an even faster rate in the civilian and commercial sectors with a range of applications.

As background, UAS platforms can be categorised in terms of size and weight, as well as the flight envelope and endurance offered:

  • SUAS (small UAS) – e.g. the Aerovironment RQ-11B Raven
  • TUAS (tactical UAS) – e.g. the Boeing/Insitu ScanEagle, the Elbit Hermes 450 (used by the UK Army as the Watchkeeper)
  • MALE – (medium altitude long endurance) – e.g. the General Atomics Predator
  • HALE – (high altitude long endurance) – e.g. the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk

ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) were the initial application drivers for UAS platforms in the military sector, but as the platforms have improved in capabilities, so has the mission envelope. Airborne ground surveillance and surveillance missions still represent the dominant use of UAS platforms, but potential is also growing for use of UAS platforms to support maritime patrol and EW (electronic warfare) requirements. UAS platforms are increasingly forming part of the total solution supplementing the capabilities offered by manned platforms.

The success of unmanned aerial systems in providing real-time information to military commanders has contributed to both mission effectiveness and in protecting personnel. An expansion of the mission envelope beyond ISR has helped drive continued demand for UAS platforms as well as subsequent demand for RF-based systems including radar and EW systems, but the challenge of integrating these platforms into civilian air space remains to be resolved.

Initial attempts to shoehorn military platforms for use in civilian air space have to date had mixed results, but this is being helped with the growing application of UAS platforms in the consumer and civilian sectors, as well as the development of platforms developed with civilian integration in mind from the outset. The growth in demand for UAS platforms providing commercial services encompasses agriculture, delivery services, media, first responder, media/entertainment and other industries, with agriculture, commercial security and first responder sectors potentially accounting for close to 49% of the forecasted $15 billion market for commercial UAS platforms by 2027.

To achieve mass adoption of commercial UAS platforms across government and enterprises and achieve this $15 billion potential will be almost singularly contingent upon the establishment of favorable regulatory frameworks. Existing regulations that currently underpin the use of UAS platforms will need to evolve and expand to enable applications that require sharing of civilian airspace and the requisite ground infrastructure currently used exclusively by manned aircraft.

Integration will require the implementation of harmonized Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) and procedures (PANS) and there is a 2031 target focused on developing a mature and complete set of technologies, standards, regulations, guidance and procedures to support transparent integration of UAS platforms.

This integration will require several technical challenges be addressed, and these will include the man machine interface (MMI), Communications and Control Minimum Operating Performance Standards (C2 MOPS) and Sense-and-avoid (SAA) or detect- and-avoid (DAA) systems. This will dictate additional demand for dedicated sensors and associated technologies including satellite datalinks to allow beyond line of sight flight, sense and avoid systems underpinned by radar, LiDAR and EO-IR technologies.

Crucially, AI will be integral to this expansion and achieving the goal of UAS platforms using civilian airspace routinely without requiring special provisions.

However, the expansion of commercial UAS use also brings a disruptive potential, intentional or otherwise, as well their implementation in the asymmetric threat arsenal. Almost every legitimate use has an almost mirror illegal counterpart. Examples include illicit goods trafficking into prisons and across borders, and disruption to commercial air traffic either through collisions with aircraft or interference to other airport operations such as boarding.

Being able to detect and counter illegal UAS platforms is a growing concern, but unfortunately, the threats in the civilian sector have up until now been largely seen as hypothetical with the early market for counter-UAS systems has been driven by the military market, and no real budgets being allocated for the civilian sector. Recent high profile events in the UK where drones caused severe disruption to airport operations at Gatwick and Heathrow airports have served to bring this issue to the fore. The ability to counter the UAS threat is a prime example of disparate systems being brought together to overcome four key requirements:

  • Monitoring of the spectrum environment
  • Finding the signal
  • Sensing the threat
  • Neutralizing the threat

These capabilities will be enabled using radar, EW, C2 (command and control) and other technologies typically associated with military systems. Moving forwards, these systems will use AI to enable effective counter-UAS operations.

More immediately, the unabated radio spectrum land grab by the commercial sector will mean that the challenges for radar, EW and communications systems NOW include being able to operate effectively in an increasingly congested spectrum environment and developing sharing mechanisms, while also combating new potential threats such as those presented by illicit use of UAS platforms.

A key challenge will be dealing with the vast amounts of data generated across military and commercial networks which will require better spectrum management, as well as optimising spectrum use through the use of more complex modulation and AESA-based architectures. This will be coupled with wideband RF technologies and a focus on bringing the signal into the digital domain using faster ADCs and DACs to enable faster digital processing. This will be coupled with software that takes advantages of component hardware capabilities to enable systems that feature flexible configurability, field re-programmability and spectrum management.

This is leading to system automation and is providing the evolutionary stepping stones towards systems that are at present adaptive and will eventually feature cognitive capabilities enabled through artificial intelligence that enable faster understanding, insightful decision-making and timely action.

Taken collectively, it is clear that AI-enabled robotics platforms and sensor systems will provide the next generation of differentiation on the battlefield.