R2-D2 is coming to the battlefield, sort of; Foreign arms sales, rising; ULA beats SpaceX; and more.
It’s not quite R2-D2 repairing Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing fighter in space battle, but artificial intelligence could soon be helping the military predict when equipment will break, fend off cyber attacks, and prevent ships from colliding with one another.
That’s the promise of AI systems by SparkCognition, an Austin, Texas-based startup. Founder and CEO Amir Husain says his AIs can teach themselves enough about a field of endeavor to diagnose situations and offer solutions. Or, as Husain put it: “Our algorithms can extract the physics of the problem just by observing the data.”
SparkCognition, which is already providing services to dozens of aviation-related firms, recently received investments from Boeing and Verizon as part of its initial $32 million funding round. The company has also attracted the interest of former and current Pentagon officials. Retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen is a board member. Among the firm’s senior corporate advisers is Wendy Anderson, who served as chief of staff for Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter and as deputy chief of staff for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Lots more about this below the jump...
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Lockheed Invests in NanoSat Firm
Back in October, we told you how Lockheed has been looking to diversify its space business. Now comes an announcement by Lockheed Martin Ventures, the VC arm of the world’s largest defense contractor, that it will invest in Terran Orbital, an nanosatellite design, development, manufacturing, testing and launch with operations in California and Italy. “The investment will create opportunities for the companies to share their expertise and customer relationships to advance this emerging technology,” the companies said in a statement. The financial terms of the investment were not disclosed, but it “includes cash and in-kind investments for an equity stake in Terran.”
Sikorsky Gets Rather Large Helicopter Deal
How large? At least $3.8 billion. The contract — announced in June 30 — covers at least 257 Black Hawks for the U.S. Army and foreign customers at an annual build rate of 36 to 72 aircraft over the next five years. The contract has a max of 360 aircraft, which would raise its total value to $5.2 billion. Saudi Arabia is slated to get 40 of the Black Hawks, which are not part of the $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia announced in May. That deal calls for 150 Black Hawks, but those helicopters would be purchased directly from Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky. The 40 that are part of last week’s contract are being purchased by the U.S. Army on Saudi’s behalf.
Foreign Military Sales on Record Pace, Again
We’ve spent a good amount of time tracking foreign arms sales, and it appears fiscal 2017 could set new records. Since Oct. 1, the U.S. government — under both the Obama and Trump administrations — have approved deals worth a potential total of $59 billion. That’s according to Cowen analyst Roman Schweizer, who expects that total to take another jump. Here’s why: NATO spending increased 4.3 percent this year and is projected to grow again next year. Much of the $110 billion that Trump announced during his visit to Saudi Arabia has not been formally announced yet, Schweizer notes. Asia-Pacific nations are buying arms to counter China. Plus, Middle Eastern nations are going to need to replenish stockpiles as the campaign against ISIS enters year three. For what it’s worth: The Obama administration approved more than $320 billion in foreign arms deals over eight years.
ULA Chosen Over SpaceX for Air Force Contract
The $191 million contract for a 2019 Air Force launch marks the first time the United Launch Alliance, the Lockheed-Boeing joint venture, has beaten SpaceX since the Air Force began allowing Elon Musk’s firm to bid for national-security launches. That said, SpaceX has not yet launched its Falcon Heavy rocket, so it did not expect to win, a company spokesman told Reuters.
Boeing Services Division Open for Business
The Plano, Texas-based unit, which is on equal footing with Boeing’s commercial and defense businesses. The services unit, which the Chicago-based firm announced it would stand up last year, is expected to compete for the $2.6 trillion in maintenance and upgrades expected across the commercial and government sectors over the next decade.
President Trump has nominated Matthew Donovan to be undersecretary of the Air Force. He’s currently the policy director for the Senate Committee on Armed Services, He’s a retired Air Force colonel and F-15C fighter pilot who served for 31 years.
The Pentagon has made no secret that it wants to pair humans with machines to help them make decisions faster. The military has been looking for ways to automate intelligence processing using a new algorithmic warfare cell. The work done by SparkCognition appears to fit into the sweet spot. Already, these algorithms are being used by commercial firms to forecast failure rates for ship turbines and pumps. And they can predict more than when equipment will fail, but also the type of failure and why it’s failing.
One customer is Flowserve, a Texas-based pump manufacturer.
“We built a solution for them that extended their failure forewarning from four hours to five days,” says CEO Husain. “That’s the kind of impact [the company’s algorithms have]. We don’t know anything about pumps; we’re not domain experts in pumps.”
In the aviation industry, he says, SparkCognition is supplying “a huge array of now close to 60 of the largest industrial aviation customers...All of them have pointed to the uniqueness of this automated model building approach.”
The group includes Honeywell and new investor Boeing. “SparkCognition is at the forefront of a technological shift in machine learning and artificial intelligence that will revolutionize every aspect of industry,” said a statement by Greg Hyslop, Boeing’s chief technology officer and its senior vice president for engineering, test, and technology. “They are leaders in AI, and they are pursuing the types of technologies that are critical to our future products and services.”
In the defense sphere, the company has used its “natural language algorithm” to transform military manuals for a defense firm.
“So instead of going up and looking through these manuals and figuring out what to do when something breaks and going through that prognostics process, you want the model to basically anticipate what you need and also fetch information that is collected from various different manuals … based on the intelligent understanding of that content and is provided back to the person asking the question,” Husain said.
From a military perspective, the algorithms have much potential, particularly in cyberdefense.
“The threat surface is so massive that dealing with the types of threats that are emanating and targeting the cyber capabilities of any country of any developed economy, that is your one area where the use artificial intelligence to block that is a huge contribution,” Husain said. “We are working on that.”
Husain said his algorithms might also be able to help with the reported pump and turbine problems with the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships. “That is the exact kind of thing we look into and that we protect on a commercial level with a large number of companies today.”
Then there’s the R2-D2 applicability across all military systems.
An “AI watchman” could prevent ships from colliding with one another since the computers are “constantly looking at sensor data and is making sense of the environment and the situation.”
The company is now “investing heavily” on a project Husain calls automating decision making, using artificial intelligence to plan and take action.
“There is that safety aspect of using artificial intelligence to augment the level of capability and intelligence available on ships, on tanks, in aircraft, all over, where you almost have an embedded AI technician be part of every military asset,” Husain said. “That is a capability and it leads to benefits that are tremendous. It leads to not just monetary savings, but the savings of lives.”
And the possibilities are endless, Husain says there’s an easy answer to the question: Where can AI be applied? “It can be applied literally everywhere,” he said.