I just returned from the spectacular Dubai Air Show 2021. The event was invigorating, the conversations intense and the technology on display truly eye-opening. But this event was not just about new products and slick marketing. The sum of what was put across portends a shift in both technology and international affairs and is worth exploring in some depth. So, let’s dive in using specific exhibits on display as illustrations of these important shifts.
1. Efficiency in aviation operations will be tied in large part to artificial intelligence
At the show, I spoke on a panel that discussed AI and the future of aviation. Specifically, how AI could optimize aviation fleet maintenance and operations. I was joined by colleagues from Air Canada, Etihad Airlines and the European 5G Drones project. What struck me about the discussion was that the question of whether AI could make an impact was not raised even once. Just a few short years ago, a panel like this would have discussed at length how AI was relevant, whether it could deliver results and so on. Today, the discussion starts with how AI is already being used and where it will take us next.
At SparkCognition, we’ve partnered with Boeing and our other aviation partners to showcase and deploy AI-driven efficiencies in everything from aviation manufacturing, to reducing the turnaround time on flights, to augmenting the maintenance staff with in-context, on-time information prompts developed via natural language processing platforms.
On the panel, my colleagues and I discussed how predictive approaches to crew scheduling, estimating delays and identifying fraud were now being used, and how they could be improved.
One key area that is ripe for AI application is the safe integration of large numbers of autonomous aircraft in our global airspace. In fact, at SkyGrid, we have successfully built and deployed technology that automatically creates optimal routes for autonomous aircraft, programmatically submits and has them approved by the FAA and then enables operators to execute a large number of missions, efficiently. SkyGrid’s pivotal partnership with Raytheon ensures that the data available to our AI planning and estimation algorithms is informed not just by voluntary RemoteID location information from cooperative drones, but also radar-detected non-cooperative traffic. In essence, what results from this fusion of data and AI is a traffic management platform of the future. AI and blockchain technology allow SkyGrid to be to the third dimension what the TCP/IP protocol was to the Internet; a standard way of routing, of providing quality of service, redundancy, and safety.
AI in aviation is still nascent, but many – if not most – operational efficiencies will be driven by artificial intelligence in the future.
2. Advanced technology has proliferated widely. Winners will balance cost and competence.
The image below shows the Russian Checkmate fighter mockup. This is a new stealth aircraft proposed by Russia’s United Aircraft Company. It is interesting for several reasons. First, at least aspirationally, the aircraft is high technology, but low cost. It takes the approach of “good enough” stealth at a low cost. While the aircraft is still at the mockup stage and the final price remains to be seen, it is supposedly available at $30-35mm per airframe. To be realistic, I would increase that number by 50%, but it would still be substantially lower than the cost of an F-35, which hovers around $90mm. The way the Russians achieved these cost reductions were partially through the re-use of existing systems. For example, the wing design of the Checkmate fighter is essentially taken entirely from the larger SU-57 twin-engined stealth fighter.
Second, the aircraft is undeniably high tech. With stealth, AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar technology and advanced weapon systems. It is now one of many under-development stealth fighters being pursued globally. The Turkish TFX, Indian AMCA, Pakistani Azm, Chinese J-35, French NGF and the British Tempest are all active stealth projects. Of course, the Chinese J-20 and Russian SU-57 have already achieved operational status. Very few technologies are the exclusive domain of one nation. Ground based lasers? Turkey has already fielded those. Electro-magnetic railguns? Both the Turks and the Chinese. Cognitive Electronic Warface? At least half a dozen countries have credible, active projects in these areas. Hypersonic and high-supersonic? China, Russia and others are all in on the game. At the show, IAI (Israel Aircraft Industries) had their air-launched Rampage supersonic missile on display.
Technology has proliferated, and winners will be defined by how quickly they integrate advanced capabilities at low cost. While the US is leading across many areas of technology, one risk I see is that the cost at which we deploy new technologies continues to increase and it effectively interferes with the overall capacity we can field. Innovation at lower cost should be what we optimize for.
3. Platforms are necessary, but they should no longer be the focus. Platform enablers are most important.
The PAC (Pakistan Aeronautical Complex)/CAC (Chengdu Aircraft Corporation) JF-17 fighter has been a success in many ways. With a 58%/42% workshare between the PAC and CAC respectively, the fighter was developed with modularity in mind. The idea being that the platform should be inexpensive and reasonably competent, but the real differentiation would be driven by subsystems that enable the platform; radars, avionics, EW, weapon systems and more. These were kept entirely independent of the platform and protocols were developed to quickly integrate disparate subsystems together. The result has been a fighter that ranges in cost from $15-$30mm per airframe based on the sophistication of the block, of which over 150 units have already been produced and which has in aggregate achieved 100,000 flight hours as of 2021. The aircraft has also been exported to Nigeria and Myanmar, with Argentina, Azerbaijan and others now contemplating a purchase.
Most impressively, the Block III version of this effective, low-cost fighter fields PL-15 BVRAAMs with a range greater than the AIM-120 widely used on most US combat aircraft. It also fields an AESA radar and sophisticated EW capabilities. The cockpit user interface is impressive and many best of breed subsystems, such as Martin Baker ejection seats, have been integrated.
The key lessons of the JF-17 are, first, that platforms are indeed necessary, but they are not the be all and end all. Volume and cost matter. In particular, volume matters because as employment of platforms becomes more autonomous and planning becomes more AI driven (see Hyperwar for more), many inexpensive “nodes” on the warfighting network are superior to a small number of painfully expensive nodes.
Second, that an open architecture and a “LEGO block” design approach is essential in a world where technology is evolving so rapidly. On the JF-17 this means that the entire platform is an amalgam of western, eastern and indigenously developed technologies. Indeed, flight computers, weapon systems, software, EW, radars and their attendant algorithms will change quickly. They must be integrated as quickly. And that can’t happen without open architectures and protocols. The USAF has done some commendable work in enabling Kubernetes-based, containerized software deployments on its aircraft. More needs to be done and every future program should be required to deliver extreme levels of modularity.
Third, that the US needs to lean-in more in developing collaborations with emerging economies. All countries are looking for greater technological independence and the old model of buying black boxes that are hard to understand and impossible to maintain is unappealing. Yes, there are always counter arguments to “tech transfer”, but we cannot be the gatekeepers of all technology. We need to move faster than the rest and use advantage in the here and now to build deep partnerships with other nations. These will lead to strategic and economic advantages that can drive positive feedback loops for us, broadly.
4. Unmanned systems are where most of the industry’s future innovation is focused.
The number of unmanned systems, loitering munitions and drones of all types on the show floor was absolutely staggering. The UAE had an incredibly impressive display of systems developed, or under development by EDGE, their new national defense production enterprise. As the images illustrate, rotary, fixed wing and eVTOL systems were all on display.
Clearly, autonomy is a massive driver in defense technology and many nations are discovering that it is a great leveler. Both in Libya and Nagorno Karabakh, drones and loitering munitions have shown a glimpse of how future battlefield advantage will be constructed.
The show was not limited to military autonomous systems, however. Many vendors showcased civilian systems as well. Some seemed a little too aspirational, but there were many very real, credible designs. It is absolutely clear to me that unmanned civilian aviation is coming and it will represent an order of magnitude expansion in the aviation industry. Problems that simply could not be solved in the old paradigm, particularly the last 50-mile mobility problem, will get addressed and it will be a huge economic unlock.
5. New partnerships are poised to impact the world geo-politically, but they are also a source of technology competition.
I was struck by how many projects and products on display were collaborations between different nation states. At the show, the UAE and Israel announced a partnership to develop unmanned surface vessels. The K8NG trainer and JF-17 fighter aircraft were examples of Sino-Pak cooperation. The Mushaak basic trainer, now in use by 10 countries, was an example of US-Pakistani cooperation fielding a digital cockpit provided by Genesys Aerosystems. The Indian contingent showcases the Brahmos supersonic missile, an example of cooperation between Russia and India. And of course, the host nation, the UAE also had on display the impressive – and positively gigantic – Calidus B-350 turboprop close air support aircraft which was developed in collaboration with Novaer of Brazil.
Clearly, technology partnerships are increasing and joint ventures between nation states create greater capability than any single country can provide. Our US government policies should continue to evolve to make it easier for our technology companies – leaders in their fields, globally – to collaborate and cooperate with other countries. We have done such work with traditional partners in Europe, Australia, and Japan, but it may be time for us to use technology partnerships to increase our influence beyond our traditional allies. In a time when co-development is a preferred partnership mechanism, we need to use it to our advantage and not cede the field to those who may not possess technology as sophisticated as ours but are more open to collaboration.
The air show was an eye-opener, and anyone interested in aviation specifically, or technology in general, would have left dazzled. The fly-past and airshows were tremendous and the sheer commercial energy of so many world-leading firms all at the same venue, was wonderful. But there were deeper trends to pick out amidst the marketing glitz and product glamour. The world is changing. Technology shapes the future. In humility, lies victory. So, we need to take note, not underestimate the change before us and adapt as if our future depends on it. Because it does.