Today, it is possible for most people to go to their local electrical store and pick up an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) complete with HD camera, Wi-Fi connectivity and live streaming capabilities all for under $400. These relatively low prices open up UAV technology not only to hobbyists but also to a whole host of industries including farming, energy, telecommunications and security.
Off-the-shelf UAVs – while not as sophisticated as larger military systems such as the Predator UAS – offer unique capabilities and are relatively easy to use. So easy in fact, that ordinary civilians are finding ingenious ways to use UAVs to enhance their business or profession.
Non-defence industries embracing the unmanned revolution
In the mineral-rich region of Pilbara, Western Australia, driverless trucks are used extensively in iron mines run by British firm Rio Tinto. Convoys of huge, unmanned 500 ton trucks snake their way through Pilbara’s dusty red deserts carrying freshly mined ore – it’s known as the Autonomous Haulage System. Last year, the trucks moved more than 100 million tonnes of earth.
It’s all a sign that the commercial sector is embracing technologies which were once the sole preserve of the military. Demand for unmanned and robotics technology is surging and tech companies are answering that call with cheaper and more advanced products, increasing demand further. This is disruptive innovation – creating new markets and applying different values – and it’s being led by the likes of Google and Amazon, not defence departments.
This raises a number of important questions as to whether cash-strapped defence departments can leverage commercial innovation for their own defence needs. Why does the US military need to pump money into unmanned ground vehicle research when the technology is being used right now in Australian mines? Why do soldiers have to wait for expensive drones when there are highly capable off-the-shelf options?
With the help of crowdfunding, a UK-based technology firm is producing the world’s first detector capable of identifying plastic 3D printed weapons.
It’s a common sense approach and one that, in theory, could save significant sums of money in research, development and procurement costs. There are, however, complex reasons why it can be both a good and bad thing for the military to use commercial innovation and the technology it spawns.
Unmanned trucks – all the same?
Let’s go back to Rio Tinto’s autonomous haulage trucks operating in Western Australia; they have been hugely successful and their use is expanding. By contrast, the US military – one of the biggest spenders on robotic trucks – is still experimenting with autonomous trucks. So why can’t designers simply unbolt the equipment that makes haulage trucks autonomous and bolt it on a military truck instead?
Tony Stentz, director of the National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) at Carnegie Mellon University, says there is some overlap in the technologies needed to drive autonomous military and commercial vehicles, but there are also significant differences. And Stentz speaks from experience; NREC has worked with mining truck makers Caterpillar to develop the Autonomous Haulage System and also with the US military on autonomous trucks.
"One key difference would be terrain," explains Stentz. "Military vehicles need to be able to go anywhere, they need to be able to cross the next hill and deal with whatever is there, whether they have a map of that area or not. That is a significantly harder problem than commercial vehicles have to face."
Autonomous vehicles used in mining or agriculture usually follow pre-determined routes devoid of hazards or nasty surprises. For the commercial industry, steps can be taken to make the environment more conducive to autonomous navigation including installing infrastructure and limiting the amount of personnel and vehicles on-site. The military doesn’t have these luxuries, so it requires much more intelligent autonomy.
Other differences include end objectives, weather conditions and, most importantly, the fact that an enemy force would disable your vehicle if it had a chance.
Using commercial core components – the iRobot approach
Despite these differences, Stentz believes technology from the commercial sector will make a significant contribution that the military can leverage. It is core components, including computers, sensors and devices such as GPS, which the military can make use of and where the commercial sector can significantly drive down costs.
One company which is using commercial technology to advance military equipment is iRobot, the Massachusetts-based tech company best known for its line of robot vacuum cleaners. It developed and built the PackBot, an advanced robot mainly used for bomb disposal, in response to the clear need for the equipment when things turned sour in Iraq.
"We wouldn’t have the PackBot or any of our robots if it wasn’t for commercial technology," the head of iRobot’s defence and security business, Frank Wilson, told Army Technology in January. "Hidden inside our robots are a tremendous number of industrial chips, some of which aren’t even full mil spec [military specification] that we use in our military robots. That’s because commercial chip technology has so improved that the reliability of even industrial-grade components can be suitable for military environments," he added.
iRobot jumped the gun and built a prototype PackBot before it was even given the go-ahead by the US Department of Defense. It’s this kind of innovation initiative, with commercial technology backing, that many in the defence industry would like to see more of. The PackBot has gone on to become an incredibly successful piece of kit; thousands have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan over recent years and they have saved many lives.
Overcoming cumbersome acquisition processes
US military researchers are close to developing a pizza which remains edible for three years and never requires refrigerating or freezing.
Importantly, the iRobot approach is cost-effective – two golden words in this current fiscal environment. But it has to compete with entrenched and cumbersome acquisition processes already in place for many Western defence departments.
"That was OK in the Cold War where our adversary was even slower and more cumbersome than we were," says Randy Garber, a defence expert and senior partner at AT Kearney. "But in today’s age, the cumbersome bureaucracy and regulations is a major impediment. Certainly [defence equipment] has much higher security standards than a typical commercial product but I think at times that is more of an excuse than a legitimate reason."
Traditionally, when governments are purchasing new equipment they, as the only customers, specify the need for a certain capability, and they are the ones that pay for it. A department will fund the concept phase, development phase, low-rate initial production phase and then full-rate production. The incentive for defence companies to innovate is limited.
Commercial tech companies are a "different animal", says Garber. Innovation drives demand rather than the other way round. Who would have thought five years ago that the tablet, at the time derided as a larger tough-screen phone, would make such a huge difference to the global computer market? Commercial companies have to innovate, otherwise they go bankrupt – a problem not faced by large defence contractors with assured contracts.
The question is whether defence departments in the West can use this model of innovation. Cases such as iRobot’s PackBot – which depart from traditional defence purchasing models – are rare as it’s an inherently risky venture with no guaranteed return.
"Essentially, governments would generally prefer it if commercial companies would pay to develop the innovations into a product, system, equipment or platform and then come back to them with it and say ‘here it is, would you like to buy some?’," says Graham Tootell, a senior technology consultant at the Cambridge-based Plextek Consulting.
The UK approach – Centre for Defence Enterprise
In the UK, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is trying to leverage commercial innovation and technology through the Centre for Defence Enterprise (CDE). The CDE funds research into ‘novel high-risk, high-potential-benefit innovations’ from a range of science and technology providers, including academia and small companies. One product to be funded is the lightweight, shock-absorbing ‘goo’ made by UK-based D3O, which can be used in helmets.
"The UK MoD, particularly in the last two or three years, has done a great deal to very deliberately pull in innovation from outside of the industry, to go outside their usual suspects and to look for interesting ideas and to see if people can come up with proposals how they might be useful for the defence industry," explains Tootell. "If there’s a difficulty it’s probably bridging the gap from demonstrating a clever idea that could be really useful to a piece of equipment on the battlefield somewhere," he adds.
It’s what is sometimes referred to as the ‘valley of death’ – where funding is stopped once research is complete and this results in companies being unable to properly industrialise their innovations further. In March 2013, the House of Commons Science and Technology committee criticised the UK government for not being able to bridge this valley and having "no coherent innovation policy".
With a global downturn in defence spending, defence buyers have had to make tough choices regarding off-the-shelf commercial technology. In ordinary circumstances, commercial products would not have passed muster with the military because they are often not robust, rugged or secure enough. But with budget cuts imposed while wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were underway, there has clearly been a capability need which offsets these drawbacks.
The challenges of a new purchasing paradigm
In current UK defence parlance, the MoD is attempting so-called ‘modified off-the-shelf’ acquisition and it is the lack of money that’s the driver. "If you look at the R&D budget, it’s very small in the scheme of things. You want to spend your limited budget on the bits that commerce is never going to do for you – like aircraft carriers," says Tootell.
There is a trend to move away from bespoke technology when off-the-shelf options are viable alternatives. It reflects similar strategies in areas such as commercial manufacturing. For example, most mobile phone manufacturers will use standardised off-the-shelf components such as graphics cards and CPUs rather than develop their own, which saves on development costs.
But there are challenges to this approach and the increased use of commercial technology could run into problems. The more you use open commercial technology, the more everybody else knows how the equipment works, including a potential adversary. If they know how your equipment works, the likely chance is they also know how to stop it working and render it useless.
Many commercial components are made cheaply in China which also presents a whole series of problems if an Asia-Pacific conflict were to break out in the future.
These are new paradigms which have still not been fully explored and the consequences of which are unknown. Can we afford to risk it just so we can have more affordable equipment? Some would shudder at the thought. The use of commercial technology in the military clearly offers some significant benefits which can already be seen today, though much more work still has to be done to ensure saving money is not at the expense of security.