The Royal Navy is in the midst of a concerted effort to exploit and deploy advanced data analytics and Artificial Intelligence. Hannah Green explains why it’s full speed ahead
Now that’s an instruction not exactly uncommon in the Royal Navy. The thing is, an order like that normally occurs aboard a ship’s Bridge, as opposed to the onshore meeting room in Portsmouth where I heard it.
But then again, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, the project it was referring to – NELSON – is all about moving forward into a digital future, both at land and at sea. With that in mind, the occasional unusual request should be expected.
But what is NELSON exactly? In short, it’s an innovation programme formed to accelerate the exploitation of advanced data analytics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the Royal Navy. Its main priority has been to construct a “Navy Mind” – a common big data platform – to be used on warships and at naval headquarters.
We’ve made good progress. In a world first, the BETA data platform is successfully undergoing sea trials on a Type 45 Destroyer. Once fully operational, this fleet-wide, ship-agnostic big data layer will transform the analytical capability of a ship’s systems by making all appropriate data available in one environment.
This will deliver better analytics using more data, but will also reduce costs of integration, and enable new upgrades to be seamlessly introduced as technology continues to move forward. From using predictive AI to undertake preventative ship maintenance, to identifying suspicious shipping behaviour, to strengthening logistics planning, NELSON is revolutionising how the Navy conducts its operations. But it’s time to pick up the pace.
The question is, how?
Let’s start with the good news. About the same time as we were asked to “Go faster”, technology and innovation were listed among First Sea Lord Tony Radakin’s five priorities. So we don’t lack for backing but that doesn’t make it easy.
The real challenge is how to combine the latest technology with over 500 years of naval history, tradition and process. The navy doesn’t want to just add a few apps here and there – they want to fundamentally change how they use their data, and this requires more than just technology. It’s about culture, too.
Currently, 80% of people serving in the Royal Navy are aged between 18 and 30. Their instinctive reaction will be to look for a technological solution to a problem, even though in a lot of cases that solution won’t currently exist.
But just because it doesn’t exist right now, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t – and part of NELSON’s role is to help them create it. After all, we are not an App house, the same as Apple isn’t an App house. We want to provide the Navy all the support they need to develop their own solutions to their own problems – whether that is technological support, or commercial.
The Navy wants to create a culture where one of those tech-savvy sailors identifies a problem on a ship, and proposes an improvement to an application that would solve that problem. That request gets relayed back to the App developer, and a couple of weeks later the updated App is deployed and ready for use, and that sailor sees the benefit.
The clock is ticking
This process relies on ‘DevOps’ – but is as much about process and culture as it is about technology. NELSON’s tagline here is ‘118 weeks to 72 hours’. The current standard process for putting new software on ships is 118 weeks – because new software usually involves new hardware. This is completely at odds with how modern technology is designed – 72 hours seems much more reasonable in the world we live in.
The tech exists to do this – it is entirely standard in environments elsewhere. But it is completely new ground for the Navy. This means that the approach taken is not one of cutting corners, but of engaging with and following process whilst also challenging it if the same thing couldn’t be done differently going forwards.
Clearly, safety and security are paramount. And certainly, how to deploy software at an appropriate speed whilst maintaining the same integrity with regards to safety and security is an interesting challenge to say the least. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done – anything but.
Delivering the Navy’s vision will require business change on both sides – the Navy and Industry – but ultimately, as much effort needs to put into the ‘how’ we do it as much as the ‘what’ we do. That’s because it’s the ‘How’ that enables us to ‘Go faster’.
About the author
Hannah Green is a Lead Data Scientist with BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
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