In the defense sector, leveraging the most advanced digital technology is essential for maintaining a competitive edge in military engagements. Many nations, including the United States, have long employed digital technologies for defense and continue to adopt the latest digital solutions, especially when optimizing their training and operational readiness processes. With the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the demand for safe and secure digital, virtual, and remote solutions has only grown.
Current challenges and opportunities
The legacy technology used by many in the defense sector for training and operational readiness is expensive to create and maintain and is often risky and immobile. Defense departments now require more agile and mobile technology that can be updated easily and deployed wherever and whenever necessary. Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) offer the capability to create more efficient and contextual military training simulations and operational solutions. VR provides an immersive user experience, while AR enables users to overlay digital content, such as blueprints or instructions, onto real-world objects using spatial awareness technology. The combination of AR and VR, often called extended reality (XR), has huge potential to transform digital technology in the defense sector and revolutionize the way armed forces personnel access information, plan mission strategy, and conduct critical operations.
AR and VR technology are already being widely used in gaming, education, and healthcare industries. In 2016, Goldman Sachs projected that the AR/VR market would generate USD 80 billion per year in revenue by 2025.1 More widespread XR adoption is already underway in the defense industry as well. According to a 2019 Business Wire market study, “the United States will be investing as much as USD 11 billion by 2022 into virtual, augmented, and mixed reality training systems, with extended reality becoming a primary focus of military innovation.
How AR and VR impact the defense industry
The U.S. military and other defense organizations are focused on employing XR technology in four key categories: Operational readiness, situational awareness, indoor and outdoor navigation, and military training.
In defense, operational readiness is critical for mission success. The maintenance of complex and expensive military equipment and systems before and during operations is a distinct and persistent challenge. If equipment fails or systems go down during combat, getting the right expert on the field at right time is difficult, putting the whole operation at risk.
With the use of remote expert solutions using AR technology, military field personnel can easily get step-by-step guidance to perform the maintenance and repair. Computer vision technology is used to detect the parts and sub-parts of the asset. Then, AR superimposes information on top of the user’s camera view. Experts can also see what the field personnel see and communicate using voice, annotation, and holographic content to help with the task. This not only saves time but also reduces the cost of repair and mitigates operational risk.
During active combat engagements, military personnel can be guided remotely by an expert. XR technology provides the soldier with instant information to make quick, smart situational decisions. XR can also enable the capture of 3D video and 3D mapping and measurement in real-time to further enhance remote and field collaboration.
In current warfare, military personnel need to know soldiers’ exact position to keep track of forces, deliver joint-operational strategy, call for joint fire, or coordinate with other forces to execute the operation with minimal risk. In order to achieve this, traditionally a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), such as GPS, is used. This works perfectly fine for outdoor navigation. However, in operations where personnel are required to move inside buildings or narrow spaces, indoor navigation technology is very much required.
Accurate positioning in indoor navigation can be achieved via XR technology, by creating a 3D point cloud of map and GPS coordinates with visual identification of objects. The camera and inertial sensor on a mobile device can be used to track the 3D point and device orientation and determine the current location and orientation of a specific soldier. AR-based navigation instructions, including both visual and auditory cues, can also help the military personnel carry out the operation successfully. More widespread adoption of this technology depends on accuracy, cost, and the range and comfort of devices on which it can be used.
Traditional military training, whether by PowerPoint presentation or in-person demonstration, can be time-consuming, expensive, and often cannot be completed in high-pressure or high-risk environments. Conducting training in active combat zones is especially challenging and requires high situational awareness and prompt response to enemy moves. AR and VR technology provide many new opportunities to enhance existing military training processes, on base or in combat.
Soldiers can get life-like combat experience anywhere by leveraging XR technologies. AR and VR remote collaboration technology can be used to teach strategic planning skills for tactical missions.
AR and VR can also give trainees enhanced situational awareness skills in any training environment. Countless operational environments can be created using an AR simulator, preparing soldiers for various weather conditions and geographic regions before and after they’ve been deployed.
XR training programs for bomb disposal squads can enable a team to practice neutralizing explosive objects of various colors, types, shapes, and configurations. AR and VR can also be used to simulate sand table exercises, which can improve tactical decision-making, battlefield visualization, and overall engagement effectiveness.
Additionally, VR-based training can be developed to instruct medical personnel in providing combat first aid, covering bullet-removal procedures or treating wounds and injuries in a high-pressure environment. AR- and VR-based flight and vehicle simulation can also be developed. Military trainees can learn to fly aircraft and operate submarines or ground transport without requiring access to actual vehicles.
AR and VR technologies can disrupt traditional defense training to offer a more intuitive and immersive experience by simulating real-life combat situations, with lower cost and lower risk.
Security concerns about AR and VR
The foremost concerns for any industry considering the adoption of AR and VR tools includes the accuracy, stability, and consistency of the XR solution, and device comfort for the user (e.g., avoiding cybersickness). For the defense sector, security concerns about the technology are also vitally important. Any AR and VR technology deployed for defense purposes must address the following potential issues:
- Data management policies
- Technology limitations impacting the security
- Adherence to organization security standards and protocols
- Deployment infrastructure (cloud, on-premise, or hybrid) and their implications
- Device capability and limitations
- Maintaining security levels for protection against cyber attacks
- Data protection and privacy
For instance, solutions that run on Head Mounted Devices (HMD), support spatial computing with multiple cameras, sensors, and connectivity to the network. These solutions can pose a high security risk unless proper security is ensured for both data at rest and data in-transit. The solution provider should ensure that all the mission-critical data is encrypted, and data transmission outside the private network should be restricted using proper security rules. The deployment infrastructure should also be capable of monitoring firewalls and detecting any tampering or data access violations.
The future of AR and VR adoption in defense
The defense industry around the world is always looking to optimize operations using advances in technology to stay competitive, and demand for AR/VR technology grows every day. AR and VR enables commanders to overcome today’s challenges and prepare for the challenges of tomorrow. Advances in the AR and VR technology, artificial intelligence, and terrain representation will make this possible.
The defense sector can see immediate results in terms of improving operational readiness and situational awareness. Realistic training using AR and VR can lower cost, higher efficiency, risk-free curriculum. The future of AR adoption in the defense industry depends on interoperability, reliability, and user-friendliness of the devices, the accuracy of the solutions, and adherence to security protocols.
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