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The accelerated digital transformation that took place in response to the global pandemic demonstrates the limitless opportunities for organizations to transform their operations and improve results through innovation. That can mean anything from the development of new products which were previously unimaginable, to improved efficiencies and better service delivery.

But sometimes, the stakes are so much higher – as I was recently reminded when speaking on a panel at C4ISR and Beyond 2021 with senior commanders from the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).

“On any given day, the homelands are at risk,” said Brigadier-General Greg Smith, underscoring the need to use every technological advantage possible in maintaining our defensive edge.

Col Robyn Hulan, Canadian Team Lead on NORAD’s (North American Aerospace Defence Command) Pathfinder initiative, said “NORAD is Canada’s defence business. There’s a tremendous opportunity to engage with our industry partners and make things better for the defence of North America.”

High stakes, indeed.

This is an exciting time with respect to the confluence of national defence and technology. Twenty years ago, I was a communications officer in the Canadian Armed Forces and I can tell you the degree of technology adaptation and innovation taking place today is a quantum leap forward from where it was at that time. And there is an appetite to do more.

Canada’s military is undergoing an important cultural shift, where the idea of exploiting the full potential of technology in support of its mission is increasingly embraced. There is clear recognition that technology-based innovation is essential to staying one step ahead of potential threats to our security.

We can now put cloud, Artificial Intelligence and related technologies into the hands of those closest to the mission at hand. We can extend data gathering into the field via aircraft, vehicles and even backpacks, to collect and synthesize data to give a fuller understanding of the environment, through low-cost IoT linked sensors.  Today, more than ever before, this data can be transmitted and shared across joint and combined communities using advanced communications.

Private 5G networks and whitespace WiFi now enable organizations like the CAF to broadcast wi-fi like signals over distances as large as 10 to 15 kilometres. Covering the far north with low earth orbit satellites is providing gateways to cloud services, building on the promise of ubiquitous communications regardless of location.

Curated data can then be actioned in a mixed reality application, putting that virtual world as a digital twin on top of the physical to make better sense of a focused mission and the broader theatre of operations. For example, the Royal Canadian Navy is using Microsoft HoloLens2 and Kognitiv Spark’s Remote Spark solution to improve maintenance and repairs aboard RCN vessels.

The democratization of Machine Learning and AI means it is no longer merely the domain of the data analyst – it now helps us be a force multiplier, to enable everyone contributing to our missions in previously impossible ways.

And finally, cyber has become a domain in its own right, with combatants vying for information superiority. By protecting and securing data and delivering it to the right people in the right locations at the right time, better decisions can be made in support of the mission.  Denying the same of our adversaries provides a significant advantage for our operations.

I came away from the discussion enthused by the receptivity of the Canadian Armed Forces toward further innovation.

And the digital transformation is already well-underway. The CAF is leading important initiatives through the IDEAs program and other leading-edge activities to explore technology innovation. One fundamental key for success will be to look beyond the technology and explore opportunities for transformation. This is a challenging conversation across all organizations – and establishing the right tone requires a top-down approach. The senior command must indicate why there is a compelling reason to change, ensure that the entire community understands why that change is necessary and the kinds of outcomes it can deliver.

It also doesn’t have to start in mission-critical areas and innovation experiences can be adopted from other sectors. For example, in the nuclear energy sector, new technological innovation skills can be applied in the human resources department before applying similar thinking in the reactor operation. In another example: Transport Canada has created an innovation hub and invited industry partners as well as innovation champions to incubate new innovations in a safe space.  This enabled real world projects such as the program to apply AI to improve aircraft safety through the more targeted interdiction of suspect shipping containers. Digital transformation has even had a tremendous impact in the agri-food sector where they have been able to reduce DNA analysis time from eight months to eight hours.

All of this demonstrates the possibilities for defence applications – to better protect all of North America – and the CAF appears more than ready to embrace them.

Where do you go from here?

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