December 2023: Futures Lab - Cutting edge technologies and research influencing Defence


Graedon Crouch

Graedon Crouch, Futures Lab Command Lead for Air, looks at the latest technology news that can help shape Defence thinking. This month’s update features analysis on the creation of super soldiers and what the future holds for synthetic aviation fuel (SAF).

A hand created by a 3D printing process that is multi-material capable, being able to print hard and soft materials in a single pass using an ink-jet printer-like method. Source: Nature

Multi-material 3D printing

A paper published in Nature describes a 3D printing process that is multi-material capable, being able to print hard and soft materials in a single pass using an ink-jet printer-like method. Demonstration examples include a hand and walking robot (YouTube).

Defence is well engaged with 3D printing, including the US providing industrial printers to Ukraine for manufacturing spare parts, and increasing the volume of drones. This advanced technique may unlock further developments and options.

Synthetic aviation fuel (SAF)

Virgin Atlantic made headlines with their transatlantic flight using 100% SAF from London to New York. 50 tonnes of SAF consisting of 88% waste fats and the remainder from waste corn production, fuelled a Boeing 787. However, it should be noted this is not the first flight using SAF. In 2022 the RAF flew a Voyager aircraft on 100% SAF in the UK, and in 2021 United Airlines flew a passenger service from Chicago to Washington using 100% SAF. Currently SAF is more expensive than kerosene and accounts for less than 0.1% of aviation fuel consumed globally, but is often blended with traditional aviation fuels. The UK government is planning to require 10% of aviation fuel to be SAF by 2030.

It seems unlikely that SAF will replace traditional aviation fuel soon, based largely on the cost and relatively small amount of feedstocks. However, increasing the proportion of SAF derived from wastes seems like a move in the right direction for reducing carbon emissions, including from military aircraft.

Satellite communications

The UK's Competition and Markets Authority announced a study of the potential for subsidising UK companies involved in satellite communications connectivity in low earth orbit. Commercial providers of satellite communications are often a lifeline in remote regions, or where war has damaged infrastructure. Multiple vendors, including Iridium, Konnect, Viasat, and SpaceX (with its Starlink system) offer broadband internet services to the commercial market. While these services are for commercial customers, SpaceX has announced a specific product called Starshield (leveraging Starlink technology) aimed at government customers to support national security efforts.

The proliferation of satellite-based broadband availability into the commercial market (including the headlines made by Elon Musk when discussing Starlink) will likely expand and strengthen this market. This will likely be of benefit to Defence by bringing down costs and increasing bandwidth available to forces deployed to remote locations.

AI generated crystal structures

DeepMind has published a paper in Nature describing the results of their Graph Networks for Materials Exploration (GNoME) tool. GNoME learned from existing stable crystal structures to predict a further 2.2 million potential stable crystals, including some with 5 or more unique elements.

While only 736 have already been independently experimentally realised, exploring such a catalogue may herald the potential for new materials for defence applications – everything from impact resistant ceramics to radar absorbent films.

AI training data

Authors and artists whose works have been used to train large language models and synthetic image generators are now pushing back against the likes of OpenAI for copyright infringement, with several lawsuits being lodged this year. Similarly, Clearview AI received a cease-and-desist letter from Facebook after scraping user images from their platform. In other AI news, the UK National Cyber Security Centre and the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency have published guidance for the securing of AI systems. Defence start-up Anduril has signed a contract with US Customs and Border Protection to test an autonomous surveillance tower in the US Great Lakes region, using AI to track “objects of interest”.

In the race to develop better AI models, how training data is collected and used (and the associated legal and ethical considerations) can be an afterthought. As the awareness of AI and its application beyond novelty increases, issues such as training data and security are more likely to be part of mainstream discourse.

Jet powered drone

Anduril industries unveiled their new jet-powered, AI-controlled combat drone named Roadrunner. The twin-jet aircraft can operate at high speed, take off and land vertically, and operate autonomously – loitering and attempting to identify targets. Anduril suggest it can be used for a variety of missions, including intercepting other drones and aircraft, reconnaissance and as a missile; including returning to base and landing if not required.

Reporting on the use of drones in conflict is accelerating, with much of the innovative technology and tactics being driven from the Ukraine/Russia conflict. The US is also encouraging allies to use more drones, especially at sea in the Indo-Pacific region.

Super soldiers

A panel of scientists at the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference in the US discussed advancements that could lead to super soldiers. Cybernetic implants, synthetic blood, eye injections to improve vision, and devices that are able to write directly to the brain were among the ideas discussed. These are not just science fiction, with R&D programmes underway in these areas. The discussion also included ethical considerations of the use of pharmaceutical enhancements such as steroids and hints that other countries may have eugenics programmes to create better pilots. Of note, the reporting did not include discussion of CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) gene-editing. The first commercial application of this was recently approved by the UK to treat sickle-cell disease.

The application of technologies to enhance, genetically alter and improve soldier performance is likely to be the subject of intense ethical debate. Over time though it is conceivable that their use becomes more accepted and common place in wider society, thus pushing the boundaries of future soldiers.

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