Rifleman Ben Yate using the "bug" nano drone from UAVTEK
Credit: Heathcliffe O'Malley
Britain this week unveiled its biggest military spending increase since the Cold War, pledging an additional £16.5bn for defence over the next four years.
Boris Johnson said the extra cash would help create 40,000 jobs – many of which are set to be in high-tech roles as part of a new space command and an artificial intelligence agency.
In the future, a soldier in hostile territory would be "alerted to a distant ambush by sensors on satellites or drones", with AI helping devise the best response which could involve an air strike, an assault by a swarm of drones or a cyber-attack, said the Prime Minister.
Meanwhile warships and combat vehicles could be equipped with "inexhaustible" lasers to take on opposing forces, Mr Johnson suggested, with no prospect of them running out of ammunition.
Such innovations are already being developed by private companies as part of the UK’s world-leading defence industry. Here are some of the futuristic project that are set to benefit from the cash:
Improbable, a gaming technology business which has expanded its wargaming service in recent years, announced earlier this month that it had signed another 12-month contract with Strategic Command, the organisation which oversees the country’s armed forces.
The company’s modelling service lets the military play out scenarios, examining how things like troop morale and ammunition suppliers affect the likelihood of a successful operation.
The Telegraph reported earlier this year that the Ministry of Defence has spent more than £8.3m on Improbable’s software, a figure that’s set to rise significantly over the next year.
Joe Robinson, the head of Improbable’s defence business, said the spending rise “will help to maintain the UK’s competitive advantage as well as provide new, cutting-edge capabilities to address emerging threats.”
Modern technologies “have the very real potential to enhance the UK’s national security, and also drive significant cost savings over time,” he added.
Improbably chief Herman Narula
Credit: Hannah McKay
Skyrora’s space launches
The Prime Minister outlined his desire to set up a centralised Space Command, akin to a similar ambition of US President Donald Trump who launched his own Space Force last year.
Among the companies that could benefit from the additional focus on space is Edinburgh-based Skyrora. The company launched its 32ft rocket, the Skylark Nano, in the “middle of nowhere” in May.
The company has grand designs on becoming the British rival to Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Skyrora aims to launch commercial rockets in 2022 that will carry satellites into orbit for corporate uses, like telecoms and navigation.
The Government has already shown its commitment to backing satellite companies, having splashed £400m for a stake in OneWeb earlier in the year.
Adding another domestic satellite provider would undoubtedly prove to be a boon as part of the state’s defence spending splurge.
The launch of Skyrora's Skylark Nano rocket
Credit: Skyrora / SWNS.COM
Oxford start-up Adaptix is best-known for its 3D medical X-rays which give doctors a detailed look at people’s bones. Its X-rays shows multiple depths of a person’s body, allowing medical experts to scan through to better understand injuries like fractures or breaks.
But the start-up has also received more than £200,000 in military funding from the Ministry of Defence’s Defence and Security Accelerator for an unusual project which could scan electronic devices to detect if they had been tampered with.
The same X-ray techniques which reveal people’s bones can also be used to detect if a spy had placed a bug inside a laptop or switched out a smartphone chip without anyone needing to disassemble the device.
The Ministry of Defence is investing around £130m into laser weapons, officially known as "Directed Energy Weapons" that can be installed on warships and helicopters.
Penny Mordaunt, the defence secretary at the time, said last year that the technology "has the potential to revolutionise the battlefield by offering powerful and cost-effective weapons systems."
Laser weapons are due to be tested in 2023 on Royal Navy ships and Army vehicles. Laser weapons are part of a suite of technological advancements being tested that should be deployed within 10 years.
A consortium of defence contractors including GKN, Arke and BAE Systems has already been working on Dragonfire, a laser weapon which can be used to dazzle a target’s sensors or to destroy it completely.
Adarga’s AI tools
British start-up Adarga is developing tools that will allow companies and the military to analyse vast amounts of data using artificial intelligence. Adarga uses its service to scan defence reports to analyse them and create accurate summaries, for example.
The company currently supplies its service to Strategic Command through a contract with defence contractor BAE Systems Applied Intelligence.
Rob Bassett Cross, the company’s chief executive, welcomed the announcement of higher defence spending.
The spending pledge “will enable the MoD to leverage the UK’s world leading data science and software engineering talent,” he said, “to not only help meet the nature of threats now presented in an era of persistent competition, but to benefit the security and prosperity of the UK as a whole.”
The Ministry of Defence has bought a number of drones from British start-up UAVTEK which can be used by soldiers to fly above the battlefield to send back video of enemy troop movements.
The bug-like Black Hornet 3 nano drone, which is built in the UK, weighs 191 grams and can travel at 81 kilometres per hour with a flight time of up to 40 minutes on a single charge.
The Ministry of Defence is looking for even more types of drones to add to its inventory, with tenders including 2.4 metre fixed wing “Sentinel” drones as well as smaller “Scout” drones which can fly for up to three hours.
Weapons to dismantle hostile drones
Northop was granted just under £100,000 for its “drone disrupting” technology. Using electromagnetic pulses or “EMPs”, its tech can take nefarious drones out of the sky. The weapon, which relies on semiconductor chips to create its pulse, can also halt the electronics in cars and trucks that could bring a military convoy to a halt.
The so-called “anti drone” market is worth around $600m (£452m) currently but has been tipped to grow to $2.5bn within the next five years.
Taking down enemy drones has also caught the eye of the US military, which has committed more than $400m to research in the best ways to neutralise the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
Stopping tanks in their tracks
Founded by a trio of Imperial College London graduates, Synbiosis aims to popularise non-lethal devices that can also stop advancing vehicles.
The company, which has received £750,000 for its NOLED or “non-lethal entanglement device”, claims that it can provide the same strategic military benefits as a landmine without posing a risk to civilian life.
Synbiosis says its device, which uses materials to bring the wheels of advancing tanks to a stop, is “simple” and that it can be used in either a desert or a built-up city.