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


Graedon Crouch, Futures Lab Command Lead for Air, looks at the latest technology news that can help shape sector thinking. This month’s update features news on the AI safety summit and whether airships are going to make a comeback.

Airlander blimp

Are airships making a comeback?

Zeppelins were perhaps the most famous lighter-than-air (LTA) aircraft, before the Hindenburg disaster and the speed of jet aircraft throttled their popularity. However, there has been mounting interest in LTA aircraft technologies for several years, for use cases including reducing emissions, cargo transport and tourism (USD$200,000 buys a ticket on a 2-day flight to the North Pole from 2026). In late October, LTA Research gained US Federal Aviation Administration approval for test flights in San Francisco. In the UK, Hybrid Air Vehicles announced a partnership to begin construction of the Airlander 10 in Doncaster in 2026, with a display at the 2027 Royal International Air Tattoo.

Theoretically, airships do have advantages over other aircraft, such as loiter time and reduced emissions. Though LTA aircraft lack comparative speed and wider/delayed commercialisation of their technologies (for example, in 2019 OceanSky announced polar flights beginning in 2023 using the Airlander 10), there are potential use cases that may be of interest to Defence.

AI safety standards

The UK hosted the inaugural global AI safety summit at Bletchley Park on 1-2 Nov. Set against a backdrop of concern for how AI will impact the future, and calls for regulation and controls, an organiser of event commented: “there is a lot of good will” but “ we still don’t know what the right answer is”. Yet on 17 Nov, Lord Camrose – the minister for AI and Intellectual Property – stated that the UK won’t rush to regulate AI, instead preferring a pro-innovation approach.

The White House has issued an executive order outlining how tests need to be developed for the “most powerful AI systems” and share the results of these with the US government. This is to ensure AI systems are “safe, secure and trustworthy” and not used for the development of dangerous biological materials or fraud. This may, in part, be a response to a paper by RAND examining how large language models (such as ChatGPT) might be used to inform biological attack planning; and, work demonstrating how models used for generating new drug designs could be subverted to produce chemical weapons.

Globally, militaries are embracing AI. For example, Shield AI has raised $200m in latest Series F funding round for its AI technology for military aircraft and pilots; placing its value at $2.7bn. Their V-BAT drones harness this approach, putting one human operator in command of four aircraft. In the UK, Dstl recently staged an exercise on Hampshire beaches to collect data for AI model training.

The AI zeitgeist is dominated by danger and caution (including by globally recognised experts). However, other prominent experts such as Marc Andreessen and Andrew Ng question this, instead stating the dangers posed by AI are wildly exaggerated.

While the world continues to debate the safety of AI, some prominent litigation involves the unlicenced use of celebrity media for AI models. For example, AI generated models of Scarlett Johanssen, Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis have appeared in advertisements without their consent. AI has also been used to create deepfake pornography, swapping the faces of people into pornography and creating child sexual abuse material, using AI to make legal pornography actors resemble children.

A possible scenario affecting Defence is the creation of propaganda, such as the depiction of fake war crimes by British service personnel. While, for example, the British Army has been subjected to false media allegations previously, reputational damage can often be done well before the falsity of fake media can be proven.

Space situational awareness

The EU Space Surveillance and Tracking Partnership is working to improve the accuracy and quality of tracking orbiting debris to improve space situational awareness. They are aiming for a 50-50 balance of military and commercial data used to raise levels of space safety, security and sustainability.

Outputs that provide greater fidelity of debris orbits that may impact the safety of military satellites should be of interest to military space planners.

Quantum technology developments

The hype around quantum technologies in a variety of sectors is increasing. Atom computing has recently announced the first (publicly acknowledged) quantum computer with over one thousand qubits. Earlier this year Navy X and Imperial College experimented with GPS-free quantum navigation. The impact of quantum computing to break encryption schemes has been explored by the National Institute for Standards and Technology in the US since 2016; followed by an announcement this year of three quantum-resistant algorithm draft standards. While quantum computers are feted and feared for their potential to break current encryption schemes, it has been estimated that 20 million qubits would be needed to break 2,048 bit RSA encryption in 8 hours.

While qubit counts have been increasing, 1,000 qubits is probably several orders of magnitude less than required for meaningful applications. At such a scale, issues such as error correction and quantum decomposition need to be overcome for applications outside of the laboratory. Yet, with recent reporting highlighting the impact on commercial aircraft navigation from GPS spoofing, the practical application of quantum inertial navigation systems may be more pressing. There are both engineering and integration hurdles to clear before quantum technology becomes a pressing issue; however, quantum-resistant algorithms are needed now to avoid high-sensitivity data being compromised by malicious actors who can ‘harvest now – decrypt later’.

Drone warfare

While western militaries are familiar with drones (such as the Predator from the mid-90s), commercial/hobbyist drones are now playing a more visibly emphatic role in conflict; the Ukraine/Russia war being notable for both the volumes of drones employed and the rapid innovation of new technologies. The Israel/Hamas conflict also suggests a prominent role for drones, with Hamas using drones to drop explosives, configuring their settings to enhance operational security, and deploying an underwater, torpedo-like drone.

In other drone news, BT has recently released a SIM card specifically for drone communication, with other international vendors offering similar products, including for Internet-of-Things communications. Mobile cellular communications used by drones were prioritised for a drone trial delivering medical supplies and samples between University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust sites that concluded earlier this year. The US military has invested $8.4m to purchase a fleet of drones for field resupply and Dstl are conducting research into the use of drones for mine detection.

The increased ubiquity of commercial drone technology (and the associated significant reduction in cost) has accelerated their adoption by armed forces. A shift in mindset of drones being disposable, has fostered new tactical ideas such as the ability to overwhelm air defence systems with sheer numbers. Defence may wish to consider the application of counter-drone technologies in future conflicts involving the UK, such as directed-energy weapons (with the US Army having recently taken delivery of a prototype high-power, microwave-based system) and kinetic energy weapons (the UK having recently sent the Terrahawk Paladin to Ukraine). Furthermore, while disposability has its place, militaries continue to invest in larger platforms, such as the Mojave drone recently tested on HMS Prince of Wales.

Guided missiles

The Economist reports that nation-states no longer have a monopoly on rocket technology, based on Israeli intercepts of missiles launched from Yemen on 31 Oct. Missile guidance technology has been proliferating across governments for several decades, increasing accuracy at greater ranges.

As with drone technology, hobbyist missile expertise available on YouTube, GitHub, etc. may transfer to non-state malicious actors, independent of government-backed resources. While this presents a threat, a lack of commercial rocketry use-cases compared with drones may mitigate the rate of illicit adoption.

Augmented reality

A US university has developed a US football helmet with an augmented reality screen. Gallaudet University for the deaf and hard of hearing required a way for coaches to communicate play instructions to players. Through 5G connectivity, this device presents information to deaf players and may also be of use in noisy stadiums.

Augmented reality is finding traction in various industries. Along with augmented reality developed specifically for military applications, Defence may seek technical developments from other industries to accelerate adoption.

Japanese mobility show

The first week of November was the Japanese mobility show, a showcase of the latest (and oddest) vehicular and mobility technology. It included a giant, anime-style mech suit, walking quadruped vehicles and electric outboard motors.

While the mech suit is more publicity stunt than practical development, it is conceivable that the technologies used in the manufacture, control and movement of the gadgets and innovations at the show may become mainstream in the future. Products such as the outboard electric motors are not new (these can be purchased off the shelf now), yet they may be considered by Defence for their lower noise signature.

The Sansei SR-02 quadruped walking robot ride

Figure 1 - Source: Ars Technica

The Archax 01 robot

Figure 2 - Source: Ars Technica

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