Innovation Challenge - Artificial Intelligence in Royal Navy Warships

The fourth in the series of techUK Innovation Challenges will focus on the potential benefits of artificial intelligence technologies for the Royal Navy.  

Event Information


Date: Monday 17 October

Time: 13.30 - 15.10 (Registration from 13.00) - please be aware these times may change

Venue: techUK offices, 10 St. Bride Street, London, EC4A 4AD

This event is being hosted alongside a number of briefings as part of the October ISS Industry Engagement Day. By registering for this event you are only registering to attend the Innovation Challenge launch.

Please be aware the timings for this event may change, if they do you will be emailed directly. 

Briefing Information

The Royal Navy wishes to understand what opportunities exist now and in the future to use Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques to improve operational capability in its fighting units.

The Royal Navy (RN) aspires to use AI technology to develop an RN-owned Ship’s ‘Mind’ at the centre of its warships to enable rapid decision-making in complex, fast-moving warfighting scenarios.

Aspirationally, this capability would utilise standardised information feed formats from all internal and external sources (command management systems, platform management systems, radars, sonars, Electronic Warfare sensors, internet and classified military connectivity, etc) to inform, or indeed conduct, decision making across all maritime environments (air, surface, underwater, littoral and land warfare) in support of Task Groups and Units afloat and ashore (Frigates, Destroyers, Submarines, Aircraft Carriers, Royal Marine Commando Headquarters, etc).

Under Project NELSON, such a Ship’s Mind might go as far as being empowered to release defensive or offensive weapons, or conduct manoeuvres if the threat precluded time for crew interaction (such as against new breed hypersonic missiles). The Mind would ideally also inform/control Navigation, Logistics, Personnel, Medical, Engineering and Cyber Defence operations amongst others. The RN wishes to harness AI, but equally be prepared if others choose to attempt to use AI technologies against it.

There are 3 primary factors driving this challenge.

1. Information Warfare

The world is in the midst of an "information age" that is transforming how individuals and organisations generate, interact with and exploit information. Increasingly information is the key resource that underpins economic prosperity and is pervading all aspects of life including commerce, education, health, security and defence.

Within Defence, the information age has significantly changed the character of warfare, for example by increasing the opportunity to act or be acted upon in the non-physical domain and thus offering a richer spectrum of approaches spanning the virtual and cognitive domains. In response, the RN has initiated an Information Warfare Programme to develop its capabilities in response to the challenge. Efforts so far include progress on unmanned technologies, intelligence exploitation and cyber warfare.

To date, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has not featured highly... Rapid development in the public sector has seen AI being used across a wide range of fields, including healthcare, education and financial services. Defence is clearly another area where application of AI could have significant implications.

2. Threat Environment

Recent and current conflicts around the world have demonstrated an increasingly uncertain threat environment with hostile actors rapidly developing and utilising new capabilities. In addition, conventional threats will proliferate from traditional peer adversaries. The RN needs to be able to respond to this wide range of threats in increasingly complex environments, where the speed and volume of threat may exceed the capacity of human operators. And, of course, AI could be used by others against us as readily as by ourselves for our own benefit.

3. Personnel considerations

AI may also reduce the need to put military personnel in harm’s way and/or increase survivability rates. In addition, pressure on Defence budgets dictate future platforms should reduce manning levels. In turn, AI would then also potentially enable further miniaturisation and potential swarming of maritime technologies.

Therefore, the RN must exploit rapid developments in AI to compete and win in increasingly complex environments where the speed and volume of threat exceeds the capacity of human operators, and to enable more efficient, effective capability in sustained operations.


How is the issue currently being approached by MOD?

AI is being used or developed in the RN, and more broadly in Defence and Security, in a number of capability areas, but there are only the beginnings of a joined-up, coherent strategy to exploit and influence AI across the wide breadth of potential application areas.

AI research is being conducted in to a number of maritime areas, including its utility in Big Data analytics, in Anti-Air Warfare, Intelligence product generation and Electronic Warfare. Efforts are being made to fuse multiple information feeds to one location where AI technologies might better access them. This activity is being developed under the catch-all banner of Project NELSON.

Of specific note, the RN is looking to demonstrate Project NELSON technologies during Exercise INFORMATION WARRIOR 17 in March/April 2017, where exploring AI in the RN is one of the key deliverables. INFORMATION WARRIOR 17 will comprise multiple Information Warfare technology demonstrations overlaid on the conduct of the UK’s largest annual expeditionary warfighting exercise involving multiple UK and Coalition partners at sea, on land and in the air. Locations include Portsmouth, South West Scotland and Salisbury Plain.

What outcomes MOD would like to achieve by addressing this issue?

The RN is particularly keen to understand what AI technologies might offer, how to standardise the integration of data sets, what computing power might be required and how best it might develop RN/MOD-owned algorithms.

Additionally, how long might this take given current technological developments, what investments might be apposite now or later? Finally, what is the reality behind such a high aim mark of aspiration for Project NELSON and how might we get there fastest?’

The RN is keen to investigate AI at any time, but is particularly keen on demonstrating latest thinking during INFORMATION WARRIOR 17. 

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