How Singapore’s defence tech uses AI and digital twins

By Sean Nolan

Mervyn Tan, Chief Executive of DSTA, discusses new innovations and adapting to Covid-19.

Singapore’s national service intake is decreasing year-on-year, but where it may lack in quantity, the nation’s defence can make up for it in quality, says Mervyn Tan, Chief Executive of the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA).

Technology will be key in allowing the country to “punch above our weight”, he continues. New tools like digital twins are helping test new military systems, while DSTA’s work with external parties is creating innovation.

Tan shares what’s next for defence technology as part of the Singapore Defence Technology Summit 2021. He explains how the military is coping with Covid-19 and how the organisation can attract new talent in the future.

Exploring new technologies

DSTA is looking at how to infuse digital tech like AI into its operational platforms, weapon systems or command posts, says Tan. But first it needs a way to test the reliability of AI-enabled systems.

Digital twin technology is being used to create a virtual copy of a command post, which is where military forces are controlled and organised. AI algorithms are then introduced into this virtual command post, with staff evaluating the AI’s decision making and behaviour.

Before AI is used in command posts or even in real-life military operations, digital twins allow “new and different concepts” to be explored, he explains.

DSTA is collaborating with external organisations to help shape its new digital tools. It is working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory to develop AI algorithms, for example.

Using AI to tackle disinformation is one area that this partnership is exploring, DSTA announced recently. Improving the decision-making and dependability of AI systems is another area the partnership is looking into.

The agency is also collaborating with commercial tech partners in a “digital factory”, says Tan. Organisations like IBM and ST Engineering are working with DSTA engineers to create services and applications for Singapore’s armed forces, he explains.

One product of this digital factory is a health app for the armed forces, which provides personalised medical information for all its military users. The plan is for the app to roll out on the Ministry of Defence’s commercial cloud later this year, he says.

Mitigating the pandemic’s impact

DSTA is looking at how technology can lessen the impact of the pandemic on Singapore’s armed forces. If the pandemic continues, one option is for soldiers to train using simulators and VR/AR technology, to avoid the health risks of gathering in large groups, Tan suggests.

The military could have a large group training in one space, with some individuals present physically, while others are there virtually. Not only does this help keep to safe distancing measures, but it enables larger trainings on Singapore’s land-scarce island, he highlights.

DSTA is already developing simulated training for naval officers. The agency is working with gaming and esports organisations to create virtual training which is, “more effective, and hopefully more fun”, Tan says.

“Like all Singaporeans, our employees in DSTA also had to shift to a new form of remote working”, he shares. However, for many areas of the armed forces and defence technology sector, it “doesn't lend itself easily to working from home.”

“We have to invest more on the cybersecurity end because the attack surface will be higher” with remote work. The shift to remote working “must be done in concert with increased security against cyber threats”, Tan emphasises.

Adopting a “work near home” strategy could be one option, he suggests. For sensitive work that cannot be done at home, staff could potentially work from their nearest military camp, using the secure systems there.

The battle for talent

Recruiting talent is “the biggest battle that we are fighting”, but DSTA is doing well, he says. The agency is among the top 10 tech organisations that graduates look to in Singapore, but there is still more to be done, Tan shares.

Attracting new talent will require DSTA to publicise its unique value, the ability for its staff to “help contribute to a higher purpose”, says Tan. But the organisation will continue to improve how it gets that message across, he adds.

Defence tech organisations are exploring cutting-edge tools like AI and digital twins. But they are also addressing challenges that many agencies can relate to, the Covid-19 pandemic and the need for talent.

Image courtesy of DSTA.