The digital revolution is significantly changing the space and civil and military air domains. A look at some of the opportunities which, with the Thales Group, are making tomorrow possible, today. #ThalesNow
Interview with Philippe Keryer, Executive Vice-President, Strategy, Research and Technology, Thales.
The digital transformation of almost every branch of human activity has yet to reach its full potential. Keeping pace with Moore's law, the digital revolution is doubling the capabilities of economic, scientific and defence stakeholders every few years and is set to have a profound impact on the space, defence and aerospace markets.
This seismic shift can be attributed to four "deep technologies" which are of strategic importance for all of Thales's core businesses: Connectivity, Big Data, Cybersecurity and Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Connectivity, which has been a constant focus of research over the last 50 years and has progressed in leaps and bounds, is logically the most developed capability – and the most essential.
Without connectivity between aircraft and systems on the ground and in space (because satellites are now used for the majority of high-speed data transmissions between platforms) few of the tasks performed by airlines, armed forces and space agencies would be achievable.
Without connectivity, there would be no airland operations, no collaborative combat, no joint engagements with units combining their capabilities in real time.
Similarly, air travel is becoming safer because aircraft are able to continuously share data with other systems: without connectivity, that would be impossible. And today's airline passengers want to remain connected in flight and expect increasingly customised entertainment: without a reliable high-speed connection, they would not have access to services.
The next challenge: connecting the open world and secure avionics
While connectivity may be the most advanced capability, a number of challenges remain, and the stakes are particularly high in the air transport sector. According to Philippe Keryer, Thales's Executive Vice-President, Strategy, Research and Technology, one of the next major milestones will be to connect digital systems that are certified by the aviation authorities with "open world" systems from outside the avionics environment. "Two worlds coexist: the fast-moving consumer world, which requires high bandwidth, and the certified world, where security is paramount. But when we bring broadband connectivity into an ultra-secure environment like a cockpit, we can start to take advantage of the open world, even if certain functionalities for the crew need to be kept separate for security reasons," he explains. And the benefits certainly justify the efforts and investments being made. "Thanks to open systems, cockpits can get real-time weather data from the radars or satellites used by meteorology services, in addition to data provided by the aircraft's weather radar. Based on that information, the pilot could map out a new flight plan on a tablet computer, for example, before uploading it to the aircraft's flight management system. That's what makes connecting the open world and the closed world of secure avionics systems so exciting."
Big Data technologies are also highly complementary to connectivity, and harnessing these new capabilities is now crucial in the aerospace and defence markets.
In the civil aviation sector, the ability to make sense of the growing volumes of customer data collected from different sources offers a tremendous opportunity to create additional revenue streams.
The information that customers provide when booking tickets and taking flights is a strategic asset. It provides clues to things like their in-flight entertainment preferences, for example, and shows how frequently they fly, their favourite destinations, preferred hotels and local modes of transport. This information helps travel companies and airlines build customer loyalty by customising their services, and lets carriers focus their efforts on the services with the highest added value.
Another new possibility is predictive maintenance, which uses embedded sensors to observe wear and tear in aircraft sub-assemblies and components and track failures in real time. This kind of application of Big Data technologies offers practical benefits to both military aircraft operators and commercial airlines.
Real-time data analytics to boost performance
These Big Data applications are still in the early stages, partly because of the exponential growth in volumes of data being transmitted by IoT devices.
And simply having the data is not enough. It needs to be used to its full potential, if possible in real time. This was the motivation behind Thales's recent acquisition of US company Guavus, which has developed a scalable Big Data platform that can be tailored to meet different needs and simultaneously gathers, classifies and analyses data on the fly.
In the medium term, this technology could be used by aircraft in flight to interpret masses of radar tracks, satellite images and data from other sensors like sonars, reliably filtering out the least relevant data in real time so that operators can focus on the information that truly matters. Real-time data analytics will have a major operational impact on all of Thales's businesses and customers, boosting the performance of their systems at the same time as helping them stay protected.
In the fight for cybersecurity, for example, Big Data technologies can identify attempts to connect that do not match previous patterns or that are atypical in other ways, complementing existing methods of protection based on known attack signatures.
Thales cybersecurity expertise for strategic data protection
Cybersecurity is critical in today's world. As Philippe Keryer puts it: "Without cybersecurity, there can be no connectivity, no trusted Internet of Things, no secure clouds where companies now store their data and applications. This is true in industry, and it's true in the defence sector too. Whenever we place our trust in sensors — to fly unmanned aircraft in civil airspace, for example, or to move around on the battlefield — we must have complete confidence in the information they provide."
For many years, Thales has developed perimeter security solutions such as firewalls and security architectures that are continuously being strengthened to ward off cyberthreats. Today, all the components in Thales's systems are "cybersecured by design", starting at the R&D phase, to create a barrier to cyberattacks in the very ways they are built and interact with other components. But there is always a chance that attackers will find a vulnerability and gain access to a company or a government's most strategic data. Organisations therefore need ways to encrypt vital data to protect what matters most. "The important thing is to prevent people from stealing your data, your business, your intellectual property. You must be able to encrypt your data in the cloud or anywhere else you store it and control exactly who gets access to the keys. That's where Vormetric comes in," says Philippe Keryer, alluding to the data security company and specialist in Data Transparent Encryption (DTE) that Thales acquired last year.
Artificial Intelligence and the need for organic growth
Thales is pursuing a strategy of acquiring rising stars — companies like Guavus and Vormetric — with unique expertise in critical technologies. "We intend to continue to acquire disruptive technologies that have applications in multiple fields and will drive growth in all of Thales's businesses," says Philippe Keryer. When it comes to the fourth capability, Artificial Intelligence (AI), external growth operations are a little more complicated.
AI is at the heart of the intelligent systems that use specific algorithms to learn without being explicitly programmed. This self-learning capability makes AI technologies highly strategic. But AI talent is also a highly scarce resource, and many of the best experts have gone to work for the Internet giants. Even so, Thales currently has over 100 AI specialists and intends to boost its capacities by working hand-in-hand with other AI experts through groups such as France IA and IVADO in Canada, and by forging ever closer ties between industry and the academic community.
Cooperation and information sharing hold the key to the future of AI and its ability to open up new possibilities for Thales's customers and all the other stakeholders represented at the Paris Air Show.