UK MoD launches ‘AI for warships’ competition

Looking for technologies that could support the armed forces in 2040 and beyond

by Max Smolaks 16 January 2020

The Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA), the innovation organization within the UK Ministry of Defence, has launched a competition for designers of AI systems for British warships.

There will be a total of £4 million ($5.23m) up for grabs, as part of the Intelligent Ship initiative.

The funding “aims to revolutionize the way warships make decisions and process thousands of strands of intelligence and data by using Artificial Intelligence,” states the press release.

The first stage of the project will divide £1 million across nine projects that can demonstrate the potential of machine learning in a military setting.

“The astonishing pace at which global threats are evolving requires new approaches and fresh-thinking to the way we develop our ideas and technology,” commented James Heappey, UK Defense Minister.

“The funding will research pioneering projects into how AI and automation can support our armed forces in their essential day-to-day work.”

We’re gonna need a smarter boat

DASA was established in December 2016 to look for ways to modernize the UK’s armed forces and encourage collaboration with the private sector and academia.

A modern warship is less of a weapon and more of a command center, tasked with collecting and processing information originating on the battlefield. This brings new challenges in data processing required to maintain situational awareness.

DASA’s latest competition wants to find a solution to the “information overload” faced by ship crews. The project is a part of a wider Intelligent Ship – The Next Generation competition announced by DASA in June 2019.

The organization notes that a warship is just the prototype demonstrator for this competition – the project will inform development relevant to all defense equipment and military services.

“This DASA competition has the potential to lead the transformation of our defense platforms, leading to a sea change in the relationships between AI and human teams,” said Julia Tagg, technical lead at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl).

“This will ensure UK defense remains an effective, capable force for good in a rapidly changing technological landscape.

“By harnessing automation, autonomy, machine learning and artificial intelligence with the real-life skill and experience of our men and women, we can revolutionize the way future fleets are put together and operate to keep the UK safe.”

AI for warships is not the only application of machine learning that DASA is interested in: back in December, the agency launched another contest, looking for “semi-autonomous” reconnaissance and survey systems that could help troops safely cross ‘wet gaps’ – obstacles such as rivers, streams and bogs.

Currently, the only way of identifying suitable crossing points is to send Royal Engineer reconnaissance troops for a survey  – exposing them to danger which also informing the enemy of the intended crossing.