Amid increasing instability, the UK’s leading defence companies must look to the digital startup ecosystem and the technological success of other sectors to inform strategy and elevate agile innovation. Doing so will allow these companies to understand how pioneering solutions could be applied and adapted to achieve rapidly changing defence and security goals. This can only be achieved by redirecting budget towards innovation in an increasingly uncertain climate.
The UK is home to a significant number of immersive startup and scaleup companies. The solutions they create can be honed and adapted to meet various industry needs, including those within security and defence. In fact, ImmerseUK reported that the immersive industry turnover was around £1.4B in 2022, driven by consistent growth in the number of XR companies operating in the country, sustained growth across various industry verticals, and recent trends in private investment. The pioneering solutions required by the defence and security industries exist, but a commitment from defence and security companies to not only invest but to innovate with these startups is key.
In my capacity as Head of Defence, Security and Aerospace at Digital Catapult I’ve seen remarkable success from defence leaders investing in startup solutions and emerging technologies. For example, the Royal Navy is embracing immersive technologies to train sailors in cutting-edge new navigation simulators, as part of project Selborne. The project will see sailors wear VR headsets to take them into a naval ‘metaverse’ immersing them in key manoeuvres, all from the safety of dry land. The applications of this technology extend beyond maritime, and could be further adapted to train and develop professionals in other areas of defence and security too, demonstrating the value of redirecting budget towards innovation.
Innovation in the immersive space has also paved the way for another emerging technology to benefit defence and security. A digital twin is a detailed and dynamic representation of a real-world object or system, which mirrors the physical object’s characteristics, behaviours and conditions in real-time. The virtual counterpart is continuously updated with data from sensors, simulations and other sources, with the idea being that by having a digital twin, you can monitor, analyse and understand the real-world object more effectively.
Digital twins present significant opportunities for the defence and security industries and will play a vital role in growing the UK economy. Research predicts that the US digital twin market will be worth $149.11 billion by 2030, demonstrating the strategic importance of this technology for the UK too. This is in part why Digital Catapult will soon be launching a digital twin centre of expertise in Northern Ireland, where we will develop digital twin use cases for defence, transport and sustainability, to lower entry barriers and propel innovation in these sectors.
In fact, one of the key use cases for digital twin technology in defence could transform the design, development and verification processes for new aircraft. Typically, this can take years, if not decades – often requiring months of planning, adjustments and time to receive a certification to test fly each prototype. Using digital twins that are accurate and precise enough to simulate actual physical systems can dramatically reduce the number of flying prototypes required – with the potential to take years off the time between the ‘lab and the fab’.
Another area of innovation that is creating demonstrable value to the defence and security sectors is in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. In 2022 alone, the UK Government assessed that some 3,170 companies had AI production as part of their enterprise and solution – and this number has likely increased as more companies integrate AI and ML into their operations. These companies are developing pioneering solutions that have significant applications in defence and security, and Digital Catapult has long-been committed to developing and driving the ethical adoption of AI-powered solutions prior to the generative AI boom. This has included working with defence partners to solve some of their challenges. What we have found is that the leading defence companies must develop a more effective culture in order to foster and successfully exploit relationships with smaller AI and ML innovators.
In 2019, Digital Catapult worked with a leading defence partner to develop an AI-powered solution that used predictive analytics, modelling and immersive technology to assist military personnel in responding to complex mission scenarios. The tool was able to model and present challenging situations so that optimal solutions could be created, tested and understood in terms of potential outcomes and resource requirements. The project was followed up with an innovation workshop with our defence partner, its end-user client and 6 AI startups – entitled the Maritime Pioneers Day. This demonstrated the value of strategic collaboration between large companies and smaller agile and innovative startups. It showed how additional value could be rapidly ideated and delivered in an open environment and how a return on investment in innovation could be generated for defence and security.
The demand for advanced defence solutions amid global conflicts necessitates a strategic shift in the UK’s defence sector. Recent events highlight the urgency for innovation, calling for a redirection of defence budgets. Emerging technologies demonstrate potential in maintaining the UK’s defence and security capabilities, and in an increasingly insecure world, redirecting defence budgets towards innovation isn’t just strategic; it’s a proactive measure to ensure that the UK remains technologically advanced and resilient in the face of evolving security challenges. Any company interested in Digital Catapult’s defence work can learn more here.
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