Exploring the growing application of artificial intelligence in aerospace and defence

Exploring the growing application of artificial intelligence in aerospace and defence

While the application of AI in aerospace and defence is not new, it continues to have a significant and growing impact. By aerospace, we refer to the branch of technology and industry concerned with aviation and space flight and by defence, we refer to military assets, measures or resources for protecting a country and its assets. The two often cross over. Investment in AI in aerospace and defence varies by country. Since most developed countries have classified spending in AI for aerospace and defence, there is no definitive estimate of how much is spent on AI in aerospace and defence globally. We know, however, that in fiscal 2017, the US Defence Department will spend US$15 billion on AI solely to test AI and robotics in human-machine collaboration in combat strategies, including advanced exoskeletons and drone capabilities.


In aerospace, AI is widely applied, particularly in the US. For example, NASA uses AI to detect and capture images of volcanic eruptions on Earth and to alert government agencies of a pending eruption.It also uses quantum computers for complex problem-solving, speech recognition, air-traffic management, planning robotic missions to other planets and to support operations in mission control centres.

NASA’s Earth Observing Mission 1 satellite has used AI to fly itself for over a decade, the longest that AI empowered technology has ever flown a spacecraft. The Earth Observing Mission 1 had an autonomous scheduling function that decided on its own when to send critical data to humans on Earth for analysis. NASA also uses AI to power its robotic rover autonomously driving on Mars and exploring its surface, sending data back to Earth.

ALPHA, AI software being developed in the US that relies on deep learning, is being planned for armed combat jets to help pilots make tactical decisions. ALPHA reduces unpredictability in flight decisions caused by external conditions, such as weather. It can take in sensory data, organize it, map a combat scenario and undertake decisions in less than a millisecond. In simulations, ALPHA defeated human tacticians in a shoot-out, even with handicaps on speed, turning, missile capacity and sensors. The US military is planning to implement ALPHA to assist pilots with tactical and situational inputs during combat missions.

NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory launching in August 2017, on the International Space Station will be the world’s first in-space demonstration of quantum computing, deploying quantum computer technology created in Vancouver, Canada, in space for the first time in the world.

Aviation giant Boeing has partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to establish an Aerospace Data Analytics Lab whose purpose will be to process vast amounts of big data for the aerospace industry and deploy machine learning to optimize Boeing’s design and manufacturing process to improve construction of aircraft to reduce costs.Boeing also opened a research lab to test self-driving vehicle software and hardware for applications on land, sea and air that is led by a woman in AI.

China has expressed its intention to become a major power in space, to rival NASA by the early 2030s. However, the details of its space program are mostly classified. China plans to deploy its own rover on Mars by 2022 and astronauts on the Moon by 2036. President Jinping Xi wants China’s space missions to drive innovation in China in robotics, aviation and AI.The Chinese government is tripling investment in space sciences to US$2.3 billion, and as a result, China’s aerospace and aviation industry is expected to expand to be worth US$8 billion in the next 5-10 years.

Several Chinese aerospace companies have recently launched, including: OneSpace, which is developing a 59-ton launch vehicle with a projected lift-off in 2018; ExPace, which is developing a solid-fuel rocket for companies to send small satellites into space; and Landspace, which is developing a liquid-fuel rocket to compete with SpaceX, Blue Origin and Arianespace.

China is also investing in other major space exploration projects, including a dark matter-seeking satellite, an experimental quantum communications satellite that could lead to breakthroughs in communication and cryptography, and geolocation and Earth-observation satellites to collect vast amounts of data from Earth. Very importantly, by building a network of satellites, China will be in a position to generate big data for sale to the private and public sector, and to collect data for its own purposes, including surveillance of industrial activities, which is of concern to the US.

In December 2016, Russia announced that it would send a robot named Fedor, to the International Space Station in 5 years and to the Moon within the next 15 years. Fedor is already in training and can walk, crawl, lift, shoot guns and drive. Fedor was developed by Energia, the Russian rocket manufacturer, and the TSNIImash Laboratory of Space Robotics. Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Deputy, Head of the Military, Dr. Dmitry Rogozin, tweets about Fedor.

In the EU, the French aerospace company, Airbus, is developing the first dual purpose self-flying car that will be able to drive on land and fly when traffic is congested.

The UK, which has a large aerospace industry with £31.1 billion in sales annually, is developing augmented reality technology to allow information to be layered into connected devices, such as a headset or smartphone, for aerospace applications.


In defence, AI plays, and has played, a critical role. The US government is spending up to US$15 billion on AI in defence in 2017 to fund war gaming, experimentation and new technologies with a view to ensuring it retains military dominance. Autonomous military systems are critical for security but the future of AI in defence depends upon whether engineers can design autonomous systems with independent capacity for knowledge and expert-based reasoning.

One of the impediments of AI in defence in the US in particular is the shortage of roboticists and engineers. Because funding lags in defence, it is harder to attract top talent. The growing gap in tech expertise in defence raises the concern that autonomous systems for defence may eventually be deficient and lead to a power shift wherein AI services are leased from the private sector, causing the US to fall behind in defence readiness compared to other countries.

Much of the US defence AI development is conducted at Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of the largest science and technology institutions in the world. It conducts multidisciplinary research in various areas, including nuclear and other weapons and much of the work is classified.

Drone technology is increasingly being used in defence. Studies show that global drone spending is expected to reach US$123 billion over the next year and US$14 billion annually by 2025. Integrating drone systems will generate US$82 billion in positive economic impact by 2025 in the US, and generate more than 100,000 jobs.

The US military has developed artificially intelligent microdrones that act autonomously using AI, and are designed to work like a swarm, communicating and making decisions together, including adaptive formation flying. It is expected that they will be used for surveillance missions and targeted terminations in the future. Drones and robotic killing machines are expected to revolutionalize warfare with a first-lead advantage, allowing for the increase of human and infrastructure destruction without the corresponding risks to human life on the part of the initiating country, which raises issues of ethics and the law that AI lawyers must resolve.

In the EU, defence spending is being increased after a 2016 report found that the EU is at risk of falling behind due to the absence of technological building blocks, such as robotics and AI. The EU is contemplating investing €500 million annually on innovation in military research from 2021 to 2027. Likewise, the UK announced an investment of £100,000 in 2017 for a research fund for AI for the defence sector.

It is unknown how much China spends on AI for defence, as much of it is classified. In 2016, China (through private companies funded by or with direct ties to, public sector actors), spent US$225 billion investing in or buying technology companies in the US and Canada, particularly in strategic industries such as big data, AI and robotics with potential military applications. The acquisition of defence companies by China is of concern, not just for technology to win the AI race but also for the acquisition of global data which may be sensitive, commercial, confidential or include trade or military strategic tech, a situation the US government noted poses a national security threat.

Japan is increasing its defence spending in large part due to tensions in the South China Sea. Japan is investing a record US$51 billion in 2017 on defence and much of it is expected to involve AI. Of that amount, Japan is spending US$372 million to establish and develop military drones. The US has provided at least US$7.75 million to Japanese researchers since 2007, particularly for AI and robotics.

Modus Operandi, a Florida-based software company, is developing a type of AI that seeks to apply human-like logic to find correlations among pieces of information to detect terrorists. Areas such as terrorist financing involve time-consuming pattern analysis of intelligence and big data by humans and machines. An AI system that automates the intellectual analysis done by professionals in counter-terrorism could produce faster results and save lives, protecting critical infrastructure and democracy.

Russia is creating a robot army with “killer robots” powered by AI. The Russian Chief of General Staff has disclosed that Russia is building a complete roboticized unit that will be capable of independently conducting military operations. And Russia’s United Instrument Manufacturing Corporation has developed software that it says can be installed on any robotic system to allow it to make decisions to kill on its own, such as carrying out an attack on enemy artillery without human intervention. It uses AI to locate a human on a battlefield (or a living room) to eliminate him or her.

Creating and coding machines with AI to terminate a person raises unresolved legal and ethical concerns.

The Digital Finance Institute wrote and published a Report on Commercial AI (available here) that canvassed the pulse of AI from media stories and academic reports, covering various sectors of the economy. This article covers the Aerospace and Defence portion of the Report.

[1] Mackenzie, Financial Times, “The future military artificial intelligence complex?,” December 15, 2015.

[2] Kacey Deamer, Live Science, “NASA Uses AI to Detect and Snap Images of Volcanic Eruptions,” March 27, 2017.

[3] Emma Grey Ellis, Wired, “The Journey of NASA’s Smartest Satellite Finally Comes to An End,” March 24, 2017.

[4] Jeremy Hsu, IEEE Spectrum, “Deep Learning AI for NASA Powers Earth Robots,” January 17, 2017.

[5] M.B. Reilly, UC Magazine, “Beyond video games: New artificial intelligence,” June 27, 2016.

[6] Instagram @ NASA JPL, viewed on March 9, 2017.

[7] Dominic Basulto, The Washington Post, “How artificial intelligence could lead to self-healing airplanes,” October 6, 2015.

[8] Bloomberg News, “China’s Secretive Space Program Threatens NASA’s Dominance,” November 28, 2016.

[9] Clay Dillow, CNBC, “China’s secret plan to crush SpaceX and the US space program,” March 28, 2017.

[10] Roy K. McCall, China Briefing, “Investing in China’s Aerospace and Aviation Industry,” September 24, 2014.

[11] Anthony Bond, Mirror, “Russia develops hi-tech humanoid robot to colonise the Moon for plan to build lunar base by 2031,” December 2, 2016.

[12] Justin Postlethwaite, The Connexion, “Airbus unveils its concept for a flying car,” March 13, 2017.

[13] Dan Matthews, Telegraph UK, “How big is the UK aerospace industry?” November 15, 2016.

[14] Andrea Shalal, Business Insider, “The Pentagon wants at least $12 billion to fund AI weapon technology in 2017,” December 14, 2015.

[15] M.L. Cummings, International Security Department and US and the Americas Programme, “Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Warfare,” January 2017.

[16] M.L. Cummings, International Security Department and US and the Americas Programme, “Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Warfare,” January 2017.

[17] Beijia Ma, Sarbjit Nahal and Felix Tran,Bank of America Merrill Lynch, “Thematic Investing,” December 16, 2015,.

[18] Jasper Hamill, The Sun, “U.S. Military unleashes swarm of tiny intelligent micro-drones,” January 10, 2017.

[19] State Watch, “European Parliament study on military research: EU should get ready for war” January 4, 2016.

[20] Martin Anderson, The Stack, “UK government launches £100k research fund into AI for defence,” December 7, 2016.

[21] Ciro Scotti, CNBC, “China finds a new source of cutting-edge military technology: US start-ups,” March 26, 2017.

[22] Paul Mozur, The New York Times, “China Tech Investment Flying Under the Radar, Pentagon Warns,” April 7, 2017.

[23] Nobuhiro Kubo, Reuters, “Japan eyes fighter drone, seeks record defence budget,” August 19, 2016.

[24] Abishur Prakash, Robotics Business Review, “Japanese Military Drones, Robotics Develop in Response to U.S.-China Pivot,” February 21, 2017.

[25] Kyodo, The Japan Times, “Japanese researchers recipients of ¥880 million in US military funding since 2007,” February 11, 2017.

[26] Valerie Insinna, National Defense, “New Software Uses Artificial Intelligence to Sift Through Data,” February 2015.

[27] Christine Duhaime, AI Toronto Conference, Toronto, March 29, 2017.

[28] Loren Gutentag, Newsmax, “Russia, China Building ‘Robot Army’,” December 16, 2015.

[29] Sara Malm, The Daily Mail, “Skynet has arrived: Russian military firm produces AI technology that enables robots to make decisions without human intervention, just like Terminator’s killer machines,” October 22, 2015.

[30] Christine Duhaime, Artificial Intelligence Insights, “Plato would argue that self driving cars commit murder when they intervene in a fatal accident,” June 18, 2017.

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