Technologies made for war

Autonomous systems considered the 'next big thing' in defence technology
Image courtesy of Department of Defence

Image courtesy of Department of Defence

As dark as it may sound, warfare and the need to outsmart the enemy is often a catalyst for new technology, making the defence industry a leader in innovation. In fact, some of the world’s most innovative technologies were borne out of war.

For example, the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer (ENIAC) was initially used for artillery firing tables in World War Two and was 1000 times faster than electromechanical machines.

“Everything you’ve probably seen in the consumer arena today has its roots in a defence project: Computers, GPS, networking, wireless communications – everything really started with some military application,” says Alex Zelinsky, chief defence scientist at the Department of Defence’s Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO).

Zelinsky leads a number of research projects at DSTO, one of which is developing a range of autonomous systems. These self-governing systems use sensor data, artificial intelligence, human-machine interfaces, communication networks and fast search algorithms to control actions and are considered the ‘next big thing’ in defence technology.

Emerging autonomous systems include submersibles for clearing mines in the ocean, surface vehicles for monitoring and patrol of waters, trucks for moving heavy equipment, and four-legged robotic ‘mules’ that carry equipment for soldiers.

Autonomy in action

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are now being controlled by autonomous systems, were used by Australian troops in Afghanistan for surveillance of hazardous areas.

UAVs carry a range of sensors, cameras and laser systems to capture footage of an area that feeds back to a screen at a base terminal for viewing in real time by a soldier.

“The soldiers carry a very small UAV that they literally take out of their backpack and throw [into the air],” Zelinsky explains. “It takes off to do some surveillance work, maps out an area and sends live video signals back to see if there are any dangers nearby.”

These dangers include improvised explosive devices or bombs. A soldier can then remotely defuse the bomb using the robotic vehicle, Zelinsky says.

An example of a UAV is the Royal Australian Air Force’s Heron Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), which proved its worth in Afghanistan, says Department of Defence’s CIO, Dr Peter Lawrence.

As a result, the Australian Government has extended its deployment to Afghanistan, providing high resolution intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support until July 2014.

UAVs are also becoming prevalent in maritime patrol operations through the AIR 7000 project. The project will see the current AP-3C Orions aircraft replaced with high-altitude, long endurance UAVs.

UAVs and autonomous systems may be the future of defence, but there are concerns about how they could affect humanity. Zelinksy says it’s important to keep humans in the “centre of the loop” with the ability to control the systems and make decisions.

“The machine shouldn’t decide whether something is a red target or a blue target,” he says. “You really need to put people in the loop where they see the information, they get all the intelligence and they say ‘ah huh, we think this is a legitimate target or it is the right target’. The person with the right authority actually issues the command.”

Autonomous systems can be supervised in the same way people supervise each other, allowing greater degrees of autonomy across certain tasks.

“If the systems just go off and act with [total] autonomy, or are self-governing, then you don’t have any control,” Zelinksy says. “That’s not the way the military operates today and we are certainly not proposing any new technology would work any differently.”

Having a soldier operate a single UAV is all good and well, but it doesn’t offer much of a gain in productivity, Zelinsky continues. The challenge he is working through is to have the UAVs communicate with each other so that one soldier can operate multiple autonomous systems in a coordinated fashion.

This means flying vehicles need to be self-aware so that they don’t collide with each other, maintain high bandwidth communications, and feature high-level command controls.

The human-machine interface is another consideration. “You wouldn’t have nine joysticks for example; it’s just impossible to simultaneously fly nine planes,” Zelinksy points out. “We need to think about how to do that differently. These things would require greater intelligence in the machine itself.”

Another challenge is making autonomous systems more lightweight and energy efficient so they can stay powered for extended periods of time. According to Zelinsky, many soldiers often have to carry batteries weighing up to 20 kilograms each.

“We call [soldiers] Christmas trees at times because they have so much equipment and gadgetry on them,” he says. “So how do you develop technologies that are cheap, light and improve energy usage?”

Zelinsky is watching how technology companies in the consumer space develop user-friendly lightweight gadgets to find a solution. “That’s one thing the consumer electronics business is very good at is building things cheaper, smaller and lighter. Ultimately, we can benefit out of that. The GPS systems were very big initially, now it’s just a chip.”

Next up: A mobile workforce

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A mobile workforce

Mobility is also taking centre stage at the Department of Defence (DoD), where iPads and iPhones are being trialled by mostly field workers doing maintenance work to save them having to travel back to the office or a base and enter data into systems. Lawrence says the devices have been rolled out in the hundreds, and more will be rolled out as use cases grow.

Lawrence says he is still trying to understand how mobile devices could be used in a combat sense and if they would offer any real benefits to soldiers. “But if we can see a military use for it in that context we’ll certainly be looking into it.”

Enabling personnel to access information anywhere, anytime through their mobile devices and tablets fastens decision-making processes which increases productivity, he says.

“Once you’ve got wireless networks and activity-based working you can actually change the footprint of your offices, change the layout and workflow and drive a lot of efficiency,” he adds.

Lawrence is also working on an internal app store for DoD that will have defence-specific apps, as well office-productivity type tools. This will enable personnel to create the applications they need to help perform their jobs.

Alongside this, DoD is looking into a bring your own device (BYOD) plan called corporate owner and personally enabled (COPE), which will be supported by a defence app store and allow users to work even when they are disconnected from the network.

Part of enabling a mobile workforce is setting up strong wireless and communication networks. Lawrence is working on a terrestrial communication initiative that will enable it to run 10Gbps links into its largest bases. The network will support 100,000 users in Australia and overseas.

“Our focus… is remediating the core backbone in Defence so that we are able to provide information consistently to all personnel regardless of location,” Lawrence says.

“We will get a better fixed network in Australia, we’ll get better integration for satellite and international networks… it will give us wireless connectivity for bases and offices, and we will get improved video conferencing and unified communications.

“This will increase a worker’s productivity by ensuring staff can meet with their colleagues using the video conferencing capability, making it easier to connect with regionally based staff. This technology is an essential part of creating a mobile workforce.”

Telstra is helping DoD deliver the network. Lawrence says he is “deep in the design phase”, aiming to complete the rollout by mid-2016. Initial capability is expected to come late 2014/early 2015.

Randall Brugeaud, chief technology officer at Australian Customs and Border Control, is another public sector IT leader enabling a mobile workforce. He is trialling Microsoft Surface Tablets and Nokia smartphones, as well as Windows To Go USB keys for remote access, using the Windows 8 mobile platform. About 700 devices have been deployed for field workers across a staff of 5000.

“We have more than 100 systems currently in production and many of those duplicate functions across different business lines,” he comments. “Our challenge is to bring that number down by bringing together common functions into a service-wide capability rather than a business-line specific capability.

“One of our strategies in the interim is to stitch together a thin veneer over our legacy systems through the use of mobile applications. This will allow us to join together systems that would traditionally have seen field officers manually entering data into multiple sources.”

Big data intelligence

At Customs, Brugeaud’s vision is to create a ‘connected information environment’, joining up air cargo, sea cargo and international mail in order to make correlations and gain better intelligence through advanced analytical capabilities.

“It’s moving from an environment where we’re able to identify all the things that might be of interest and join these up using natural language capabilities,” he says.

“We’d like to be able to ask questions and have our connected information environment provide answers to those questions. This moves us beyond a simple rule-based environment to a far more advanced paradigm underpinned by a far richer set of data.”

CIO of Customs, Rachel Noble, says the point is to take the noise out of the system and find anomalies so officers only intervene at the border when it’s necessary.

“We try to only intervene at the border when we have intelligence that might lead us to have concerns about the person or the goods. That, to us, is the most efficient way to run a border; where you intervene only when it’s necessary,” she says.

“We work with domestic and international partners to understand who is on which aircraft coming into Australia. This means we know ahead of the plane landing if there is someone a domestic agency within Australia might want to talk to. That means people who are legitimate travellers can move very quickly through our border processing control points.”

Noble says the amount of travellers to and from Australia is expected to grow exponentially over coming years, with air cargo alone expected to grow by 85 per cent by 2016-17. “If we thought we have a lot of information and data that we need to make sense of now from a business outcome point of view, boy are we going to be challenged in a pretty short time,” she claims.

To keep up, Customs is looking to automate departures through a process similar to SmartGates for arrivals. A tender process has been completed, with field-based testing to be conducted in Brisbane International Airport later this year.

“It’s about technology having fewer moving parts, less systems, more integrated data in real time, more automation and less manual intervention,” says Brugeaud. “That means having machines and technology to support high volume, low value activities, freeing up our officers to do things that are better done by a human being.

“But we will still have a need to do some things in special ways. For example, deep analytics and the mathematical modelling that we have people doing will still need to be done and this will require very specialised software and infrastructure.”

Another initiative at Customs is expanding its SmartGate self-processing technology for arrivals currently in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, US and UK. Noble says she wants to increase the language capabilities of SmartGate so that it can be deployed in several Asian countries.

“What that means is Customs officers can be behind the line working with passengers in the baggage section, moving around and getting a better sense of what’s going on to pick up on people who might be doing things they shouldn’t,” she says.

Wearable defence

DSTO’s Alex Zelinsky says just about any equipment that a soldier wears has some form of embedded computing, can communicate with another system, or uses GPS and location tracking.

An area currently being investigated and about 5-10 years away from being widespread is exoskeletons. These are used to increase the endurance and strength of war fighters, and are robotic pieces of equipment strapped to parts of a soldier’s body.

“They are like human amplifiers, so you would wear an exoskeleton, for instance, around your legs to walk further and faster than you would normally. Or you can use an exoskeleton to lift heavy things that you wouldn’t be able to physically by yourself.”

A wearable robot exoskeleton suit. Image courtesy of Ekso Bionics.

Zelinsky is now looking at how wearable defence equipment could be used to send information back to a base when a soldier needs medical assistance, needs to refuel or needs more weaponry, for instance.

Custom’s CTO, Randall Brugeaud, is also looking into using wearable technology for officers who work behind primary lines at airports to record and collect biometric information that might be of interest.

“Tried and true consumer technologies such as GoPro cameras are where we see real benefits, particularly for our deployed officers,” he says. “Being able to feed real-time intelligence information out to our officers based on biometric information captured by the wearable device will offer incredible opportunities.”