The Eco-System for Next Generation Autonomous Systems and Shaping a Way Ahead for the ADF


By Robbin Laird

In the April 8, 2021, Williams Foundation seminar on Next Generation Autonomous Systems, an important consideration was how the ADF could leverage a broader ecosystem of change in the commercial sector where robotics and artificial intelligence were playing key roles. An important presentation at the seminar was by Professor Jason Scholz, CEO of the Trusted Autonomous Systems Defence Cooperation Centre. Scholz is this year’s winner of the McNeil prize, awarded to ‘an individual from Australian industry who has made an outstanding contribution to the capabilities of the Royal Australian Navy’, he is also a tenured Innovation Professor at RMIT University in Melbourne.

The broader Australian effort with regard to autonomous systems provides an opportunity for the ADF to shape sovereign defense capabilities in this area as well as working more effectively with relevant global partners in this area. And it is not simply a question of kit; it is about working ADF concepts of operations interactively with core allies.

As the ADF works its way ahead with regard to building out its fifth generation force to enable integrated distributed operations, selective autonomous systems will enable the force to become more effective, more lethal and more survivable.

The Centre provides a catalyst for change. This is how the TAS website describes the organization:

Trusted Autonomous Systems is Australia’s first Defence Cooperative Research Centre, and is uniquely equipped to deliver world-leading autonomous and robotic technologies to enable trusted and effective cooperation between humans and machines. Our aim is to improve the competitiveness, productivity and sustainability of Australian industry.

 Supporting Australia’s defence capability

Trusted Autonomous Systems, together with its participants and the Department of Defence, is developing the capacity of Australia’s defence industry to acquire, deploy and sustain the most advanced autonomous and robotic technology through:

  • delivering world-leading autonomous and robotic Defence technologies
  • building innovative IP through targeted research and technology programs
  • assisting Australian industry to develop new, improved and competitive autonomy technologies
  • evaluating the utility of autonomous systems through capability demonstrations.
  • Specifically, Trusted Autonomous Systems aims to:
  • develop highly self-sufficient and survivable systems *
  • develop highly self-determining and self-aware systems *
  • develop human-autonomy systems that are human and context aware
  • increase the speed to reach a deployable state for trusted autonomous systems
  • increase the scalability and reduce the cost of autonomous systems technology solutions
  • educate in the ethics and legal aspects of autonomous systems
  • advocate and form national policy and regulations.

 Supporting acceptance, regulation and certification of autonomy

In addition to specific industry-led Projects, TASDCRC is undertaking two common-good activities that have broader, non-defence applications, in addition to their defence benefit. These activities are the Ethics & Law of Autonomous Systems and Assurance of Autonomy.

 Through these activities TASDCRC will:

  • foster ethical and legal research including value-sensitive design
  • develop policy pathways for projects and participants
  • support development of Queensland air, land and marine ranges for trusted trials, test and evaluation
  • establish independent, world-class certification pathways for global industry.

 How we work

Trusted Autonomous Systems fosters collaboration between Australia’s defence industry and research organisations and aims to increase small and medium enterprise participation in its collaborative research to improve the research capabilities of the Australian defence industry.

Established under the Next Generation Technologies Fund, with $50 million invested over seven years, and supplemented by other governmental funding, the Defence CRC aims to deliver trustworthy smart-machine technologies for new defence capabilities based on advanced human-machine teaming.

 * May be human piloted but never needs to be. If in trouble seeks human assistance. If assistance not forthcoming goes into a safe mode of operation.

This is how Scholz described the challenge and the way ahead for the ADF in the autonomous systems area:

“Autonomous systems for air, land, sea, space, cyber, electromagnetic, and information environments offers huge potential to enhance Australia’s critical and scarce manned platforms and soldiers, and realizing this now and into the future requires leadership in defence, in industry, in science and technology and academia with an ambition and an appetite for risk in effecting high-impact and disruptive change.”

He underscored the crucial importance of leveraging the broader commercial developments and uses already underway.

“We need a diversity of means to make this work. And it happened into the future. This is an initiative of defence and DST group. It leverages strong commercial technology drivers to solve these long-term challenges experienced by the department.”

The Centre takes an approach which is “defence needs-driven,” with every project clearly having to show how it can be a “game-changer for the ADF to fight and win.”

Projects are “industry led” often with smaller firms, to ensure new technologies get through the “valley of death.”

All projects are “research supported” which includes subcontracting government researchers and academics to industry – a novel approach.

Professor Scholz presenting at the April 8, 2021 Williams Foundation Seminar on Next Generation Autonomous Systems.

I had a chance to discuss with Jason, to understand the nature of the way ahead in practical terms during a phone interview on May 27, 2021.

The focus of that conversation was very much on how to get these innovations into the hands of the ADF as operational capabilities as the ADF was working force transformation referred to as building a fifth generation force.

Although autonomous systems can be labelled as disruptive technology, in actual fact, the disruption is already underway.

What the ADF refers to as building a fifth generation force can also be labelled as building a distributed and human-machine-team integrated force.

This is clearly underway with the platforms and systems which the ADF is already acquiring, but what next generation autonomous systems can do is accelerate the transition and build out greater mass for a distributed force.

And as autonomous systems are leveraged, the way new capabilities will be added, and supported will change, including in terms of the industrial model supporting the force as well. For example, the ADF is operating a number of software upgradeable systems already, with the Wedgetail being the first platform introduced into the force which is built around software upgradeability.

With a manned system, obviously there is concern for the safety and security of the manned elements crewing the platform, so that software redesign needs to be done in regard to these key considerations.

But as Scholz put it in our interview, with the Centre’s focus on the “smart, the small and the many”, compared with traditional “complex, large and few” manned systems, code rewriting can be much faster.

It is also the case that digital engineering and digital twins is changing how all platforms are designed and supported. But in the case of next generation autonomous systems, the entire life cycle of these “smart, small and many” systems is very different.

“They will be attritable; there will be no need to develop and maintain 30 years of systems engineering documentation – some of these might be used only once or a few times before disposal. When you need to adapt to the threat, digital engineering supports fast redesign and T&E in the virtual, and to add a new capability you just download it as software.” Scholz says.

And the question of how to handle the requirements process is very different.

This already true for software upgradable platforms like Triton, but it has been VERY difficult for acquisition systems to recognize how software upgradeability simply blows up the traditional requirements setting process.  Next generation autonomous systems are built around software and digital life cycles; this means that how they are validated and introduced requires a clearly modified acquisition approach.

I remember how difficult it was to introduce the Osprey into the USMC and then into the force. I interviewed a Marine in the early days of introduction and he referred to the challenge of transitioning from being a “bar act” to becoming a core combat capability which significantly transformed the force.

Autonomous systems face the problem of moving from being a “bar act.”

So where might these systems be introduced in the near term, gain operator’s confidence, and contribute in the short to mid-term to a more effective ADF?

The shortest path to escaping the “bar act” phase is in infrastructure defense.

Maritime autonomous systems certainly could provide a significant contribution in the relatively short-term to something as crucial as extended port security and defense.

Indeed, Scholz worked with CMDR Paul Hornsby in the 2018 Autonomous Warrior exercise.

According to Scholz: “This was the biggest trial of autonomous systems which the Royal Australian Navy has done to date. We had 45 companies actively participating with live demonstrations, as well hosting the final demonstration of the Five Eyes nations Autonomy Strategic Challenge which was an initiative of The Technical Cooperation Program (TTCP). We were able during the exercise to control 13 separate semi-autonomous vehicles, in the air, on the surface, underwater and on land simultaneously from a single operator at a workstation. One of the vignettes was littoral base defense.”

He argued that for the ADF, a “human-centered, AI-enabled, internet of things” approach is a way to think of it. From our work with Second Fleet, VADM Lewis and his team are rebuilding their approach around mission command for a distributed force.

This is the strategic direction already underway.

Scholz sees autonomous systems as providing mass to the distributed force. “Humans express mission command goals to machines, machines express to the operator what actions they can take to achieve that, and a contract agreement is formed. Within the commander’s intent, machines then subcontract to other machines and so on, dynamically adapting as the battle evolves to build that Mosaic.”

In both his presentation and our discussion, he highlighted a capability which they are working now which can provide for sensors and communications capabilities to support the force which complements manned assets to provide for Information, Reconnaissance and Intelligence. In other words, autonomous systems can provide for sensor networks which can be part of the effort to leverage information systems to deliver more timely and effective decisions.

“For example, high-altitude balloons can operate at 50,000 to 70,000 feet, above manned aircraft – largely solving the detect and avoid airspace problem. The endurance of these are a few days to weeks with the potential to station-keep or track surface targets with edge intelligence. The cost of these are a few thousand dollars each.

“They are reusable maybe six times, and can carry comms and ISR. Launch them in hours not like the months for cube sats. They are attritable, so you can put them in places you wouldn’t put other assets. They can assist first responders or support to war fighters.”

In short, the ADF is already undergoing a transition to shaping a distributed integrated force.

Next Generation Autonomous Systems can provide a further set of capabilities for a more effective, dense, survivable and capable ADF as it builds out for operations in the Indo-Pacific region and enhances its defense of the Australian continent.

See below to view Professor Scholz’s presentation to the seminar: