The Intelligent Ship competition announced last year by the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) and the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) is moving ahead. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) recently awarded the first round of funding, including £4m worth of contracts to further develop and bring artificial intelligence (AI) into naval forces in a bid to revolutionise decision-making on a warship.

An additional £1m has been put aside to develop related projects aiming to help crews deal with what is known as ‘information overload’.

These contracts cut to the heart of what Intelligent Ship is trying to achieve: integrating AI into the bridges of warships to shorten response times; and exploit emerging technologies such as automation, autonomy and machine learning to give the Royal Navy an edge in future conflicts.

Announcing the contracts, Defence Minister James Heappey said: “The astonishing pace at which global threats are evolving requires new approaches and fresh thinking to the way we develop our ideas and technology. The funding will research pioneering projects into how AI and automation can support our armed forces in their essential day-to-day work.”

The maritime domain is only the beginning

Don’t expect these innovative technologies making an appearance on the navy’s ships in the near future, though. The DASA is taking the long view with this project sowing the seeds for a future crop of equipment to emerge in the 2040s and beyond.

Although this project is focusing on ships, the potential of the manned-unmanned, human-AI, and AI-AI teaming it is exploring will likely proliferate through all the domains from ground to sea, air and space. As DASA and the MOD noted in their contract announcement, “although titled Intelligent Ship, a warship is just the prototype demonstrator for this competition – the project will inform development relevant to all defence equipment and military services.”

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AI has the potential to cause a profound transformation in defence at every level, from the frontlines to routine patrols and back-office administration. It is also hoped to help cut costs and keep personnel and equipment where they need to be while cutting unnecessary tasks that drain resources.

“This DASA competition has the potential to lead the transformation of our defence platforms, leading to a sea change in the relationships between AI and human teams,” said Dstl technical lead Julia Tagg. “This will ensure UK defence remains an effective, capable force for good in a rapidly changing technological landscape.

“Crews are already facing information overload with thousands of sources of data, intelligence, and information. By harnessing automation, autonomy, machine learning and artificial intelligence with the real-life skill and experience of our men and women, we can revolutionise the way future fleets are put together and operate to keep the UK safe.”

Innovations drawn from this competition to put AI and advanced computing at the heart of warfighting could have a profound influence on the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, and British Army in the decades to come.

Gray, angular mountains made of cartographic net

MOD/ Crown Copyright

Putting data at the heart of the fleet

The underlying idea behind the project is to embed data into everything the armed forces do, for example, combining input from passive and active sensors on a ship with open source information and other data sources into a stream of information that is accessible and understandable to a human operator, so that they can make better decisions.

The idea is that with more information at hand the warfighter can make the best decision faster and stay ahead of an adversary in any number of engagements from ground combat to dogfighting, bombing runs, or ship-to-ship environments. As Tagg pointed out, the amount of data available to a crew at times can be overwhelming and difficult to act on. Data is invaluable in modern militaries, but it can also be a curse; the old adage that there can be too much of a good thing holds true.

This data overload can, in fact, hinder decision-making, leading to delays and confusion when different sensors tell conflicting stories.

“Historically, military commanders had an unquenchable thirst for ever greater intelligence that they could leverage to formulate and execute the best possible plan,” explains SAS UK & Ireland director of AI & analytics innovation Simon Dennis. “Nowadays, the modern-day digital battlespace generates such huge variety and volume of data at such velocity that information overload is ironically their new bête noire.

“This next-generation competition will revolutionise the way in which our armed services are able to assimilate pre-curated and augmented information to achieve and maintain information superiority and hence strategic and tactical advantage. Instead of drowning in data, Royal Navy battle crews could be equipped with artificial intelligence tools that can rapidly assimilate the salient information from real-time feeds instantly cross-referenced and weighted across multiple channels.

“It can also be presented in the context of all historic information, which could even include the conclusions drawn by previous analysts and their resulting actions and the eventual outcomes that played out.”

DASA hopes to achieve this by building on the lessons learned and knowledge developed from the Intelligent Ship project.

Commenting on the contract announcements, Adder VP EMEA Jamie Adkin said: “To meet the next generation of operational challenges and growing quantities of data, public secure environments need to catch up. The £1m in funding for AI research to combat operators’ data overload is an encouraging sign.”

On the growing problem of information overload, Adkin said: “Added complexity places greater demands on operators, increasing stress, fatigue and mental load. So, more must be done to ensure operators have ergonomic workstations and intuitive user interfaces from which they can readily access all relevant information. As cyber threats become smarter, often using AI as a force multiplier to overwhelm systems, it’s important that the power of AI is harnessed for defence too.”

If DASA, Dstl, the MOD and industry can successfully come together and create solutions to these problems, the future ship will be more efficient than ever, automatically giving crews the relevant information they need without getting distracted by unnecessary details.

“DASA brings together the brightest minds in science, industry and academia to turbocharge innovations to keep the UK, as well as those who protect us, safe from emerging and evolving threats to our way of life,” said DASA delivery manager Adam Moore. “This project will ensure the Royal Navy and all our armed forces stays one step ahead of our adversaries.”