Digital in Defence: The age of Iron Man technology and sci-fi becoming reality

26 Apr 2019

From Star Trek’s ray guns and Princess Leia’s hologram messages to AI character HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, not to mention video calling, mobile phones, smart watches and tablets, there are numerous examples of sci-fi technologies becoming reality. Defence has long been at the forefront of digital and technological transformation – a driving force for innovation behind everything from the Internet to GPS, inspired by the imagination and ingenuity of science fiction.

One area where sci-fi storylines echo Defence objectives is the desire to protect the good guys on the frontline, whether soldiers or superheroes. Advanced uniforms incorporating liquid body armour, nanotechnology and body monitors may sound like something out of an Iron Man movie, but this is a current theme of Defence research and development in the USA, the UK and elsewhere. Not only will these technologies enhance human capabilities but will also allow medics to check and monitor vital signs easily and remotely, improving protection of troops on the frontline.

Other smart weaponry, such as UAVs, drones, self-guided bullets and unmanned tanks, are now regularly deployed or are in development, and are changing the means by which warfare is conducted. Laser weapons are smaller and lighter than ever, meaning they can be attached to tactical aircraft, for example. The UK Defence industry is at the forefront of developing new technologies, with a £30m contract awarded to a consortium to produce a laser weapon prototype by 2019.

The cross-over from the technology available to us as citizens to defence tech, and vice versa, is also becoming clearer. Augmented and virtual reality technologies have long been used as part of military training programmes, such as flight training, but now advances in consumer technology in the gaming industry, for example, are spilling over into defence, making training safer and more realistic than ever, and expanding into new areas.

Cyber security is becoming increasingly important to national security, with the impact of computer hacking, ransomware and radio jamming key national infrastructure already apparent from high profile examples such as the Wannacry attack on the NHS. Cyber warfare units are now commonplace among militaries around the world. And businesses and households are becoming more aware of the threats and acting to put protections in place.

The UK Defence industry has a vital role to play in accelerating the pace of technological change, leading development of new technologies and responding to evolving requirements to support the capabilities of the Armed Forces. The private sectors’ contribution in this area ranges from large-scale digital transformation to cyber security, communications, surveillance and reconnaissance, weapons systems, biometrics and app development, as well as back-office administration and IT systems management and integration.

In Defence, public-private collaboration is well-established. Private sector companies, including BSA members, have been engaged in significant large-scale digital projects with the military for many years. Sopra Steria has over 35 years’ experience of working with European defence ministries; for more than 5 decades Fujitsu have been a major supplier to the UK MOD including on the ground-breaking ATLAS programme; and more recently Atos has been a strategic partner with the MoD, leading a consortium to help the department meet the objectives of the UK Government’s ICT strategy and embark on a programme of digital transformation.

This series of blogs by BSA members aims to provide a snapshot of the contribution the business services sector makes to the defence sector through digital services and technology. Examples from BSA members will demonstrate the crucial role private providers’ play in delivering digital transformation across 4 themes – ICT systems in defence, digital on the front line, cyber security and Critical National Infrastructure, digital skills.

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