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Thales, a pioneer of the digital revolution

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For more than half a century, Thales has been on the cutting edge of connectivity and a driving force in the digitalisation of the defence, aerospace and space markets. Today the company is consolidating this leadership by constantly adapting to the latest technologies and tailoring its value proposition to the needs of its customers.

Underpinning Thales's innovation strategy lies a consistent policy of investment in research and technology, which accounts for an average of 2.5 billion euros a year, or 20% of revenues. With 25,000 engineers, of whom 3,000 are directly involved in R&D, and 10,000 staff members dedicated to software development or adjacent fields, Thales is resolutely pursuing a path of internal growth and development. At the same time, the company continues to seize opportunities for external growth in areas that further enhance its value proposition. The recent acquisitions of Guavus and Vormetric clearly illustrate this determination to retain the initiative in the digital revolution.

The ability to gather and exploit data more effectively is having a profound impact on the civil and military aerospace markets. Big Data offers the key stakeholders in the aerospace sector new ways to improve their operational and business performance by developing additional revenue streams and/or making efficiency gains. But making use of large volumes of data calls for high-performance data processing solutions, based in particular on enhanced connectivity, as well as a real-time analysis capability and extremely stringent security.

Guavus and Vormetric: boosting Thales's data analysis and cyber performance

Guavus has developed a platform that can process ever larger and more diversified flows of data in real time. The firm's expertise spans the 3 V's of Big Data — volume, velocity and variety — makes it possible to process millions of data points a second, manage them extraordinarily quickly, and handle a huge variety of data sources (sensors, connected objects, multiple systems). But even if the data is immediately available and actionable, it needs to be handled securely. Thales is the world leader in data security [1] and offers a whole range of cybersecurity solutions to support these Big Data analytics capabilities.

The Group offers conventional perimeter security solutions (firewalls, etc.), which are regularly upgraded to stay abreast of the evolving threat environment. Its Security Operation Centres (SOC) also provide 24/7 security supervision to identify new forms of aggression and document known attack signatures so that any attempt to gain access or cause damage to the system can be stopped.

At the same time, Thales provides encryption solutions for both data in transit, when information is being transmitted from one system to another, and for data at rest, when the data is stored in a cloud or elsewhere. Vormetric technologies make an important contribution to Thales's capabilities in this area.

New digital technologies as an innovation booster

The Thales Group's expertise therefore spans the entire Big Data value chain — collection, communication, processing, analysis and security. These new digital technologies not only offer the Group new opportunities for growth, but also provide a tremendous boost to its potential for innovation. In particular, with the Big Data revolution, autonomous systems are poised to revolutionise our day-to-day activities, our economies and our lifestyles.

Autonomous systems

Thales is already a European front-runner in tactical UAV systems, and the Group is continuing to develop new tools and systems that further consolidate its leadership in defence markets. Thales software development teams are working on ways to make drones work together, operating in swarms and interacting with each other to fulfil their missions even in the most hostile of conditions. In another example, the Stratobus autonomous airship will fly in the stratosphere, providing a unique capability in terms of intelligence gathering and/or communications. And the AUSS (Autonomous Underwater & Surface System) is an exceptionally manoeuvrable unmanned naval system that can operate underwater as well as on the surface. All these new concepts and solutions from Thales have the potential to act as force multipliers on military operations, but also to provide valuable support for security services responding to a major emergency or natural disaster.

Human operators will always stay in ultimate control of these autonomous systems, but continuing progress in Artificial Intelligence (AI) will make them ever more effective. Today, Thales expertise in areas of AI such as machine learning algorithms will enable these systems to progressively improve their performance themselves and execute a growing number of tasks autonomously so that human operators can focus on the most sensitive and critical missions.

New forms of cooperation for even more innovation

These new technologies help human operators to constantly hone their skills. For example, simulators are already used extensively by civil and military aircraft pilots, but with recent advances in technology, simulation is about to take off in a big way. Immersive simulation techniques are already impressive. In the future, virtual reality will open up even more opportunites, making it possible to immerse an individual, or many individuals, in environments that are completely artificial — yet almost indistinguishable from real situations — to prepare them for any type of task or mission.

In this world of virtual reality, immersive simulation, unmanned systems and digitalisation, Thales is positioned on the most exciting frontiers of innovation today, making the Group increasingly attractive to aspiring young scientists and anyone with an appetite for new technologies. This digital talent is a precious resource that the Thales Group is leveraging in many ways, frequently through new forms of partnership.

Open innovation

Some of these partnerships are with startups. Thales constantly keeps a finger on the pulse of the startup incubators which provide an ideal environment for new businesses and are particularly attractive to new tech firms. Each year, the Group analyses hundreds of tech startups and approaches the firms with the most promising ideas to explore future possibilities, in some cases acquiring the business or the technology. In addition, Thales not infrequently creates its own startups with a small team of people developing particularly promising projects in-house but under optimum conditions. When innovation is at stake, Thales will always seek out the best way to develop new ideas and give them the best chances of success.

Partnership with the academic research community

Often the best chance of success lies in joint research projects with universities and other research institutes. These partnerships as crucial for Thales, and more than 50 agreements are now in place with academic research teams all over the world. The company has also set up about 20 joint research labs with other companies and organisations in different parts of the world, where experts from different backgrounds and with different perspectives all work together as a team to achieve a specific set of objectives. In one notable example, Thales's long-term partnership with CNRS in France has led to more than 150 patents and 200 advanced research projects — and even produced a Nobel Prize in Physics in 2007!

With its distinctive value proposition in the aerospace, defence, security and space markets, Thales intends to consolidate its leadership, not only by leveraging its unique talents and technology expertise but by opening up and working ever more closely with the outside world.

 

Philippe Migault.

 

 

[1] Thales secures 80% of the world's financial transactions, from the computing systems used by banks to electronic card payment terminals.

12 June 2017
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