How can aerospace and defense organizations respond to present-day uncertainty and manage constant change? One of the solutions is the application of emerging technologies that allow A&D organizations to dramatically transform the way they work and deliver value to their customers. What technologies do A&D companies leverage to adapt to the disruptions of the modern changing world?
According to the Aerospace Industries Association’s Vision for 2050, some of the key technology and innovation trends transforming the aerospace and defense industry will be:
– the rise of automation and artificial intelligence,
– wide application of augmented and virtual reality,
– the rise of Industry 4.0 (e.g., additive manufacturing and digitization).
These technologies have been successfully used in the domain for some time. However, as they evolve and become more sophisticated, their employment will provide A&D organizations with more and more opportunities.
Let’s examine the applications of these technologies in more detail and learn how aerospace and defense companies can benefit from them.
The use of artificial intelligence in aerospace and defense is growing – it drives innovations both in manufacturing and on the battlefield. The technology allows A&D organizations to transform their manufacturing processes, improve safety, optimize customer service, system management, and, of course, transform military operations. In particular, AI is used in the defense sector for training the military, creating advanced weapons, surveillance purposes, and providing cybersecurity. As for the aerospace sector, it leverages artificial intelligence for air traffic management, manufacturing, training pilots, and fuel consumption optimization.
Let’s take a look at some last year’s developments regarding AI applications in aerospace and defense.
- IBM and Raytheon Technologies have signed a partnership agreement for developing advanced AI, cryptography, and quantum solutions for the aerospace, defense, and intelligence industries. AI combined with quantum technologies allows aerospace and government customers to design systems more quickly, provide security of communications networks, and improve decision-making processes.
- Sea Machines Robotics and HamiltonJet have signed an agreement on developing a new pilot-assist system that leverages computer visions, autonomous command, and control technologies for waterjets. The companies are going to integrate their capabilities (Sea Machines’ autonomy platform with HamiltonJet’s propulsion systems and vessel controls) to develop a helm-based system that reduces manual workload, automates navigation control, increases safety, and allows the crew to focus on more complex and important activities.
- NATO has implemented its Artificial Intelligence Strategy that outlines six basic principles of responsible use of AI in defense: lawfulness, responsibility and accountability, explainability and traceability, reliability, governability, and bias mitigation. According to the document, AI will have an impact on NATO’s core tasks of collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security, therefore, this strategy aims to provide corresponding policy basis.
- Project Bluebird involves the partnership between The Alan Turing Institute and NATS, which is expected to develop the world’s first AI system to work with air traffic controllers and regulate a section of airspace in live trials. As part of the project, the research will cover the following areas:
- developing a probabilistic digital twin of UK airspace;
- building a machine learning system to collaborate with humans when controlling UK airspace;
- designing tools and methods to promote safe, explainable, and trustworthy use of AI in air traffic control systems.
- The Royal Navy used artificial intelligence at sea for the first time: during the Formidable Shield Exercise, the Operational Experiment was conducted, where AI applications Startle and Sycoiea were tested against a supersonic missile threat. Artificial intelligence is meant to improve early detection of lethal threats, accelerate engagement timelines, and provide Royal Navy Commanders with a rapid hazard assessment.
Therefore, AI is gradually gaining momentum in the aerospace and defense industry, and its potential suggests that areas of its successful application will grow.
Additive Manufacturing (3D Printing)
Additive manufacturing (AM) or 3D printing is the process of creating three-dimensional objects from digital 3D or CAD modes, which implies adding materials layer by layer until the required object is ready. Currently, aerospace and defense are among the largest users of additive manufacturing technology. Let’s explore how 3D printing is applied in the industry.
AM applications in aerospace
Currently, the technology is applied for the following purposes.
- Creating rocket bodies.
3D printing makes it possible to quickly design integrated components and reduce the part count by 100 times and a rocket’s weight correspondingly.
- Building rocket engines.
The American aerospace manufacturer Rocket Lab has been producing the rocket engines with 3D-printed injectors, pumps, combustion chambers, and main propellant valves. As a result, this engine is light and reliable, which makes it possible to use it for low-cost launches into space.
- Optimization of astronaut uniforms.
Additive manufacturing is also used to create more advanced spacesuits: for example, for one of the NASA space missions, the helmets were custom manufactured with 3D printing technology and included integrated valves, mechanisms for visor retraction and locking, and microphones within the helmet’s structure. 
- Accelerating production of commercial aircrafts.
As the air traffic volume is returning to pre-pandemic level, the demand for commercial aircrafts is increasing. 3D printing can shorten the production time as printing necessary aircraft parts is much less time-consuming than manufacturing them in a traditional way. In addition, aircrafts with 3D printed parts are more lightweight, cost-saving, and make it possible to reduce fuel consumption .
3D Printing for the military and defense sector
The military and defense sector also benefits from employing additive manufacturing, leveraging it for the following purposes.
- Replacing obsolete vehicle/military aircraft parts with 3D printed ones.
This is especially relevant for Air Forces that follow the example of Boeing and Airbus and have necessary parts 3D printed instead of the ones manufactured in a traditional way. For example, they may be using aircraft for a couple of decades, and some parts of it need to be replaced. This is where additive manufacturing comes in: it’s much faster and more cost-saving to print these necessary parts.
- Building various structures, from bridges to shelters.
The example of successful application of AM for this purpose is building a vehicle hide concrete structure by the US Marine Corps using a 3D printer manufactured by ICON. After corresponding training, it took the Marines only about 36 hours to create this structure. Therefore, the technology will speed up the building processes and make them less labor-consuming.
- Aidining mine-clearing missions.
The US Marine Corps used additive manufacturing to create a headcap for a rocket motor used to detonate the M58 Mine Clearing Line Charge (a rocket-projected explosive line charge that clears a path through minefields and other obstacles on the battlefield). This made it possible to overcome the drawbacks of additional manufacturing techniques, and increased efficiency of the process.
Therefore, additive manufacturing is actively used by the military to quickly create a variety of things they require – from manufacturing vehicle parts to building necessary structures. In addition, the technology will contribute to overcoming supply chain issues thanks to deploying on-site 3D printers.
Augmented reality (AR) is a technology that makes it possible to see real world objects overlaid with digital data. It has already proved its effectiveness in manufacturing, and its potential is actively used by aerospace and defense companies, too. How does the domain benefit from applying this technology?
- Modernization of aerospace and defense manufacturing.
First of all, it improves manufacturing accuracy: AR provides engineers and technicians with necessary information in real time; they have a comprehensive picture of what the manufactured object is going to be, so they know exactly what actions they should take. Secondly, this significantly reduces downtime and improves manufacturing efficiency. Technicians don’t have to spend plenty of time examining diagrams, manuals or guides and then try to put this knowledge into action.
One of the examples of successful AR application was demonstrated by Lockheed Martin, lead contractor for NASA’s Orion spacecraft, that have been using AR to build the spacecraft for Artemis II, first crewed mission to the Moon. 
- Training personnel.
AR-assisted training is used for both defense and aerospace sectors. The military apply augmented and virtual reality for equipment, flight, and weapons training. When used for training soldiers, AR provides safer training environments, terrain diversity and customization, better access to mission rehearsals as well as enhanced spatial awareness. 
AR can also be used for training fighter pilots, as it simulates threats that a pilot has to fight with. As for commercial aircraft pilots, they can improve their proficiency during AR-assisted training, while would-be pilots learn on virtual reality simulators.
- Aircraft maintenance and repair.
The project Augmented Reality for Maintenance and Inspection aims to develop a specialized AR engine to help inspectors more quickly and easily evaluate a plane and compare its current and previous states, using real-time and historical data. This will streamline and significantly improve the process of aircraft inspection and maintenance
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- Profozich, Gregg. (2021). Top 5 Uses for Additive Manufacturing in Aerospace and Defense Industries. Retrieved from: https://www.wmep.org/blog/top-5-uses-for-additive-manufacturing-in-aerospace-and-defense-industries/
- Kottasová, Ivana. (2018). How 3D Printers Are Transforming Flying. Retrieved from: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/12/14/tech/3d-printer-plane-airbus/index.html
- Montgomerie, Scott. (2019). How Augmented Reality Can Modernize Aerospace And Defense Manufacturing. Retrieved from: https://www.aerodefensetech.com/component/content/article/adt/supplements/amm/features/articles/35685
- Spiegel, Rob. (2021). The Fundamentals of AR and VR – and how the Military Is Using Them. Retrieved from: https://www.designnews.com/automation/fundamentals-ar-and-vr-and-how-military-using-them