Revealed – the three disruptive technologies that are vital to the defense of the United States

By John Taibi

The United States remains a global powerhouse of defense spending. We devote more to shielding our borders than China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and the United Kingdom put together. And almost every year, the budget goes up. The cash commitment is clear, so for me the big question is where best to direct the funding. I believe that to properly address critical national security issues, government agencies should target three crucial areas of technology innovation: AI, connectivity, and advanced computing.

Let’s explore the numbers a little further before I explain why. The proposed Defense Funding Bill for next year shows an increase of $33.2B over 2022. It includes $132B on Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (RDT&E), which is $12.5B more than this year. With investment continuing to pour into RDT&E, I think it is vital that money is directed squarely at the disruptive technologies I’ve listed. It’s the only way to ensure that our defense capabilities surpass those countries which we don’t regard as natural allies.

If I remain optimistic, it is because America has such a diverse talent pool. We have government agencies developing next generation technology and Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs), producing some of the best solutions to innovation challenges, and we have industry-leading experts bringing the latest tech to the table. All must align and coalesce around the technologies that will set us apart from the rest of the world and allow us to maintain our superior edge.

The first of those is AI and the automation it enables. Increasingly, government personnel are being asked to do more with less – and technology can help us rise to this challenge. Uncrewed Aerial Systems have already proven their worth by allowing US resources to be decentralized and moved away from potential danger. But we can do so much more – and develop fully autonomous systems that do not rely on human interaction, input and control if we so choose.

Sensors, sensor fusion, signal processing, and AI algorithms can allow autonomous systems to perform the jobs that were previously only carried out by humans. While autonomous systems can take the place of some human resources, they should be considered complementary, working alongside humans to augment efficiency.

I believe that when considering government systems, full autonomy is something to be cautious about. There should often be a human on the loop to ensure safety and regulations are followed. Looking forward, resupply vessels and the Army’s next Bradley – the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle – will have a level of autonomy.

When discussing truly effective automated and autonomous systems, several key strands must be clearly understood. One is the importance of transitioning smoothly and rapidly from data capture to deep data insight. New data aggregation techniques are emerging to ensure that data that is derived from sensors can be interpreted rapidly and acted upon locally. This is a potential gamechanger for automated vehicles and machinery operating in the field. Sensor fusion is another dynamic area of innovation, offering breakthrough ways to combine data from disparate sensor sources to provide insight that is more certain than it would have been from individual sources.

For me, one of the most powerful drivers of automation is the use of simulated machine learning environments. The extreme cost and tortuous timescales of obtaining real-world data to train algorithms is one of the trickiest obstacles to adoption. But remarkable synthetic data and simulation techniques are now ready to accelerate development.

Here at Cambridge Consultants (CC), our team is accustomed to supporting government projects and has applied reinforcement learning (RL) to develop an autonomous behavioral engine that enables a robot to navigate dynamic situations by imitating human behavior. By exploiting simulated environments to train the algorithm, we slashed the time and cost of development. And cutting-edge sensor fusion techniques allowed us to use low-cost cameras, radar and sensors as inputs.

Let me now turn to my second disruptive technology of importance: the communications innovation that is transforming connectivity. Ubiquitous connectivity is a quality that US personnel increasingly rely on in the field. And whether it’s satcom, LTE, or 5G, there needs to be a network in place to facilitate successful communications during operations and combat the harshest and most remote environments. CC has developed advanced expertise in the technique of beamforming, which elevates connectivity to new heights.

In the first of our beamforming use cases, we worked with Stratospheric Platforms Limited (SPL) on the world’s largest commercial airborne antenna. The antenna will be mounted on a unique aircraft designed by Northrop Grumman’s Scaled Composites. The antenna’s beamforming capability effectively paints hundreds of precise beams. Each beam has high-capacity 5G coverage, around 200Mb/s, which can be delivered over specific and extremely remote areas from the stratosphere. In the second use case, CC teamed up with SmartSky Networks to deliver office-grade, multi-Mbps inflight connectivity with minimal latency. Beamforming from ground stations and the aircraft antennas enables uniform and resilient coverage over vast geographies and to fast-moving jets.

Pictured: A render and coverage simulation of the beamforming antenna Cambridge Consultants created for SPL, which can instantly create 5G coverage from an altitude of 20,000 metres and provide the flexibility to change beam shape and location as demand evolves.

Finally, I want to put the case for the disruptive progress offered by advanced semiconductor computing, from field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) to application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs). Such semiconductor technology is at the heart of government tech – whether it’s a single Bluetooth chip for the simplest admin application or the sophisticated technology stack of a satellite constellation or 5G communications network.

The bottom line is that government devices need to be low-power, ultra-reliable and able to function in remote environments. My colleagues will attest to the care and attention they devote to making sure that their semiconductor technology can enable devices to be used for extended periods of time in harsh conditions and with little to no maintenance. And pushing the boundaries even further, CC took up the challenge of pushing the power-performance envelope of Arm’s Cortex-M55 central processing unit (CPU) and Ethos-U55 micro neural processing unit (NPU). Our experts achieved an incredible 7x power reduction and 1,000x speed increase for an AI-enabled device compared to an earlier microprocessor.

This is the kind of breakthrough that can set new benchmarks for endpoint AI, applications that turn raw sensor data into context and meaning on the smart device itself, rather than sending it to the cloud. And it confirms the argument I laid out at the outset of this article – the disruptive potential of AI, connectivity and advance computing is ready to serve the nation.

About the author

John Taibi has over 17 years of experience helping leading corporations and government entities to develop breakthrough products and services in a range of markets, from enterprise software solutions to aerospace acquisitions.  At Cambridge Consultants, he partners with government FFRDCs and large government contractors to launch digital transformation and automation initiatives for the US Government, which leverage Cambridge Consultants’ global capabilities in AI, advanced sensing, robotics, and wireless communications.  John holds a bachelor’s degree from the United States Air Force Academy and an MBA from the University of Redlands.

This content is made possible by our sponsor Cambridge Consultants; it is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Nextgov’s editorial staff.

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