Next generation computing technology for the Royal Navy

BAE Systems supply and integrate many of the combat systems currently in service with the RN. Working closely with the navy, the company is funding ‘Project Dragonfly’, a £20 million investment in new technologies to ensure the warships of the future harness the rapid developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI).

Developing combat systems will help manage the flow of data from the ship’s sensors and control of weaponry. Upgrades to the Combat Management Systems (CMS) gives the command team better tools to improve the speed and accuracy of decision making. This is especially important as high-end threats from missiles get faster and low-end asymmetric threats become more complex. Cheap computing power, open architecture and partial use of commercial off the shelf (COTS) technology has the potential to dramatically reduce initial cost and allows a much cheaper path for upgrades or addition of new capabilities.

BAE Systems are rolling out a new standard for Combat Systems fitted to RN vessels. Shared Infrastructure uses common consoles and open-architecture software running on a high-bandwidth network connected to server farms that provide redundancy and backups. The hardware is easily replaced or upgraded and resilient to damage or partial failures. The old model of bespoke operations room consoles running proprietary software from a single vendor was expensive, inflexible and slow to deploy. The new open architecture supports virtualised environments so third parties can contribute software to provide additional bespoke capabilities. BAES (Project Host) will in future adopt an ‘app store’ model whereby approved third-party software developers can offer their own specialised packages that can be quickly downloaded and installed by the customer as required.

There are obvious cybersecurity and potential dangers with more open software systems linked to weaponry. Initially, all new software will initially be ‘sandboxed’ where it can read data from the main system but is unable to write out or action anything. This will help trial capabilities and test reliability without risk of unintended consequences or infecting the main systems.

To young sailors joining the RN today, the keyboard, mouse and flatscreen-based systems in the current ops rooms appear relatively dated compared to their touch-screen mobile devices or gaming consoles. The RN is keen to address this as soon as possible and utilise the latest developments in HCI. This may include touch, gesture and voice controls and wearable technologies.

Although the space appears hugely over-sized for a warship compartment, this is a concept video to demonstrate how a future operations room might look. New ways to quickly interact with increasingly large volumes of data gathered by warships are needed.

A head-up display for the officer of the watch

An example of an HCI development that could be close to becoming a reality in a naval environment uses existing consumer-orientated Microsoft HoloLens smart-glasses (c£2,000). The augmented-reality glasses are worn by the OOW on the bridge and overlay data on his/her field of view beyond the ship. Using a hand-held clicker it is possible to select details of other vessels, aircraft or features of interest and get a pop-up with data or close-ups. A view that might be obscured in foul weather or very bright sunlight can also be enhanced by the system. Instead of reliance on voice communications with personnel in the ops room who interpret the picture fed from the ship’s radars and electro-optical sensors, some of this data can now be fed directly into the view of the officer on the bridge. Just like an aircraft pilot looking through a head-up display, the OOW can spend more time looking outward instead of looking down at consoles or screens. The smart glasses have to be wireless so the wearer retains total freedom of movement around the bridge. Dell is developing a new secure WiFi standard which is resistant to jamming and interference which should be ideally suited to this application.

The COTS HoloLens system is not sophisticated enough to cope with stormy conditions at sea and BAES plan to utilise stabilisation technology already developed for their Striker II helmet used by Typhoon fighter pilots. The Striker Head Mounted Display (HMD) has built-in stabilisation systems that calculate the pilot’s exact head position and angle so the information overlay seamlessly compensates for aircraft and head movements. Adapting a mix of COTS and proven equipment should reduce costs and development time. A shore-based trial of the system is planned for early next year at the Maritime Integration & Support Centre (MISC) at Portsdown Hill, during Exercise Information Warrior (March-April 2019). If successful, trials at sea on a Type 23 frigate are planned to follow soon after.

A brief video showing the information overlay seen by the officer on the bridge wearing AR glasses.  

Artificial Intelligence goes to sea

The transformation in computing offered by machine learning, neural networks and artificial intelligence has been coming for some time but only in the last few years have practical applications of this powerful technology started to appear. In the not so distant future AI has the potential to run a fully unmanned operations room or even a ‘robot warship’, but taking the human out of the combat decision-making process entirely would be fraught with operational complications, ethical issues and remains in the realm of science fiction for now.

In the near term, BAES plan to begin to add AI to its combat systems, to provide a range of aids to the command team. AI can help reduce workload, increase situations awareness, deliver faster reactions and make sense of complex data streams. It may also reduce the number of personnel required and can advise how to optimise the use of all available assets at a given moment. An example of AI that is currently in development for naval use is a ‘patterns of life’ monitor. For example, a warship deployed on maritime security operations in the Gulf might use this tool to provide alerts to the command team about suspicious vessels. Over a short period of time, the system can ‘learn’ what are normal operating patterns for fishing vessels or commercial traffic in the region. As sensor data is constantly analysed by the AI application, it can quickly spot and flag up when a vessel deviates from usual behaviour. This can be done faster, more accurately and with a much higher volume of contacts than by human operators. AI could also be used in the event of swarm attacks by small boats or UAVs to advise the command which threat to engage first and distinguish between decoys, non-hostile contacts and genuine threats.

Plans for the near future

BAES future combat system solutions will be branded INTeGEN and their Combat Management Systems will be known as INTeACT. They have an approximately five-year development plan for the new concepts with the intention that their INTeGEN offerings would be available for the first Type 31e frigates due to enter service from 2023. Currently, BAES are the sole CMS integrator and supplier to the RN. The Type 23 frigates and LPDs are fitted with their DNA(2) system and their CMS-1 is fitted to the Type 45 destroyers, QEC aircraft carriers and, in simplified form, to the Batch 2 OPVs. Under their existing contracts with the RN, ships are being gradually upgraded with Shared Infrastructure and the eventually the new generation of INTeACT systems which will also equip the Type 26 frigates. Other CMS brands are available, Thales are offering their Tacticos system for the Babcock Arrowhead 140 Type 31e frigate candidate but will have an uphill struggle to dislodge the incumbent supplier.

It would be fair to say that some aspects of the combat systems at sea today with the RN are slightly behind the technological curve. The navy, BAES and other suppliers now appear to be making a concerted effort to test and deploy complex, but affordable new technology iterations faster, in order to keep up with the advances made by potential adversaries.