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MAN NEEDS SPACE TO GROW
During the time that Cassini/Huygens is making its lonely journey, nearly 1,000 commercial satellites will be launched into Earth orbit. Many of these will also be using not only antenna and microwave technology but data processing and separation systems from Saab. However, instead of searching for the secret of the beginning of life, these satellites will serve more concrete purposes, such as mobile telephony, the Internet, digital TV and video-on-demand. It may sound unbelievable that Bill Gates and Mickey Mouse should have more influence than NASA on development in the space sector, but it is nevertheless true. It is a sign that the industrial society has taken a decisive step into the Information Age.
Games that aren’t games.
The boundary between leisure and military applications of the same technology is becoming all the more diffuse. Technology that used to be reserved for national and international research programs and military purposes has found its way into many commercial applications, even TV games. Saab’s history contains many examples of this process. Now, however, a transfer of technology and knowledge is also taking place in the opposite direction. Whether commercial or military, the basic problems are often the same, as are the techniques used in solving them. This is a matter of information and sensor technology, of systems integration and of understanding the interface between man and machine. More precisely, it is true to say that the difference between a TV game and information warfare is more a matter of purpose than technology.
One example of the integration of technologies can be seen in military training, where the combination of lasers and information technology is being used in command and control of ground forces. Another example is in GPS satellite navigation technology, which permits the exact determination of aircraft or ship positions in relation to each other as well as globally. In military contexts, GPS technology can be used for extremely realistic training in missile warfare or for landing a Gripen fighter without the aid of any type of ground system, even in the worst weather. In civil applications, exactly the same systems can be used for many purposes – from monitoring the progress of a goods consignment between supplier and customer, to increasing the safety of air traffic, which in some cases is beginning to resemble the tailbacks encountered on the ground in many cities. One of the military consequences of this new technology is that machines rather than people become the prime targets in a conflict. Also, knowledge of technology and economics is more important than control over land areas when it comes to building up a nation’s defense.
The difference between data and information.
The dramatic development in the military sphere has an exact counterpart in the commercial world. Both are the outcome of three important technical advances. The first of these is the enormous growth in computer capacity, which makes it possible to handle and process huge quantities of information. The second is the rapid increase in communications bandwidth, which enables larger amounts of information to be distributed to more people in less time. Information available at one location can be spread to the whole world within a few hours. The third is the degree of precision, which for the first time makes it possible to hit a military target with a single projectile or to reach out to a commercial target with a single message.
While these developments are paving the way for completely new military as well as commercial scenarios, they present us with one of our greatest challenges. How are we to combine the enormous amounts of data from all these systems and transform them into a reliable picture of reality? For the president of a company, this will be a difficult task to manage alone. For the pilot of a Gripen, at the hub of an intensively busy information system, it will be impossible.
Goodbye to the human factor.
In the same way as the Gripen has to have computers to be able to fly, the pilot has to use a variety of computer systems to carry out his mission. Each individual source of information – such as a radar, laser or infrared sensor, or a radio communications link – gives its own “view” of the situation. These views have to be assembled into a single picture of reality and produce a collective recommendation on pilot action. Making the information environment tolerable is one of our most important tasks. The aim is to prevent the human system from becoming overloaded, thereby minimizing the risks connected with the human factor. In expert language, the basic concept is known as situation awareness: the perception of elements in the environment within a limited time and space, the apprehension of their significance and an extrapolation of their evolution in the near future.
To understand what this implies, we can consider the normal situation when driving a car. The driver registers his environment with his sight, hearing and physical senses. His balance system reacts if he takes a bend too quickly. His sense of feeling registers the vibrations transmitted to the steering wheel from the tires. On the car radio, he hears a warning of traffic jams. The car’s own information system indicates fuel, oil and water status, and warns him of anything from an open door to the risk of skidding. Passengers tell him if he has missed a turn and via the mobile phone he is given a “mission” such as shopping, fetching children from day nursery or attending a meeting at work. All this is enough to make him feel stressed, with an accompanying increase in his accident risk. Now consider how the pilot of a Gripen would experience information stress at twice the speed of sound. Furthermore, his situation is likely to become even more demanding in the future, with the development of new sensor technology, faster telecommunications and virtual reality technology. The information war, which was once a matter of gleaning intelligence from the enemy’s dispatches, has now taken on a new and very tangible meaning. Is it a real missile, or just information that looks like a missile, that’s heading for your aircraft?
“What you see is not what you get.”
There are two very clear trends in all development.One is that increasing numbers of individual functions are being gathered together in the same physical unit. The other, which is related to the first, is that increasingly complex systems are becoming increasingly simple to use. A mixer tap is much more complex than two separate taps for hot and cold water, but it makes it much easier to regulate temperature and flow. In combination with developments in electronics and data technology, which are leading to an increasing proportion of functions and performance being decided by software, this means that an apparently everyday solution, or even an outdated one, may in fact be on the cutting edge of technology. To the untrained eye, the Viggen, which was the world’s first combat aircraft with an onboard computer, looks the same as it did in 1971. However, through the continuous replacement of its computer systems and software, it now has completely different characteristics and performance. Perhaps the best proof of the statement that increasingly complex systems are becoming increasingly simple to use is provided by the Gripen. As the first and so far the only fourth-generation digital combat aircraft, the Gripen represents a masterpiece of advanced, high-technology systems integration. Nevertheless, or possibly for just this reason, it is sufficiently straightforward for the pilot, a technician and five conscripts to refuel, service and rearm in less than 10 minutes.
Our place in the system.
In the past eighty years, the cost per calculation, today defined as computer operations per second, has been reduced to one trillionth of its original level, in other words by a ratio of 1,000,000,000,000 to 1. If the trend continues at this pace – and there is little to suggest that it will not – the level of 10 teraops (one trillion operations per second) that researchers consider necessary in a computer with the same capacity as the human brain, will be achieved by a supercomputer costing less than SEK 100,000,000 in 2010 and by a PC costing SEK 25,000 in 2030. The question will then be: “Do we need a man in the machine any longer?” If all knowledge can be etched in silicon and therefore bought for money, what will be the basis for our competitiveness? The answer to this question is that there is knowledge that is very difficult to acquire for money. You can buy or read your way to knowledge of the constituent parts, but the ability to build a unit out of them demands experience that can only be obtained by practicing in a real environment. Furthermore, the integration skills involved in a high-technology system span so many areas, perhaps hundreds, that it is impossible for a single person even to have a general idea of the whole. The risk is that through eagerness to solve the problem, more resources and more people will be introduced into the process, with the result that, in addition to the system that was originally to be integrated, yet another complex system is added.
Selling your soul.
Now we are beginning to get to the core of the subject. Can it be true that as a system becomes more complex, technical skills become less important than humanistic skills? Designing advanced systems requires the integration of skills that no single person can master alone. Thus, systems integration demands communication. In order to reach its target, communication in turn demands both insight and social skills. The interfaces we are building cannot be exclusively mechanical or electronic; they must also be human. To gain respect for a solution, you need to show respect for the problem. Knowledge, not only machines and technology, is the most important commodity of our age. At the same time, knowledge is an increasingly perishable product. It has to be used as soon as possible, otherwise it will quickly lose its value. The people and organizations that will prove successful in this new age are those who learn to exploit new information quickly. At the same time as they are able to invest in new knowledge, they will be bold enough to leave established knowledge behind them. Good returns on investment are a matter of obtaining the best interest on intellectual capital, and the growth in value is higher in networks than in hierarchies.
A new challenge for the engineer.
All the time, the world is changing around us. Military applications become commercial. Development becomes faster and competitors more numerous. New actors create even more competition, which is unaffected by traditional rules for arriving at a solution. The same technology that is used for realistic animations in films such as Jurassic Park can be applied to military training and simulation, and vice versa. That is one part of the challenge: applying existing technology to new areas and making better products in a shorter time with fewer resources. The other part of the challenge lies in implementing innovative technology to develop completely new solutions, even completely new needs. It is vital to avoid a morass of detail and instead create new action patterns that are tens or hundreds of times more efficient than was previously possible. This applies both in military strategy and private consumption. The third part of the challenge is to lead the way in uncharted territory, in other words applying a classical scientific approach in order to see something no one else has ever seen before. All the time, reality is so advanced and so complex that we have full freedom for our creativity at every level. What begins as an idea in the head of an engineer grows into a total aviation, space or related system, sometimes involving more than 100 spearhead skills in high technology. Brain power replaces brute force. A single person becomes a group of 8,000, using a wealth of know-how to perform tasks no-one else can manage.
Back on Earth.
There are those who claim that the purpose of evolution is to make people travel. Staying in one place for any length of time is only a recent development in the history of Man. From the beginning, Man has been an explorer and his fascination with technical progress is simply a reaction to his limited geographical mobility. Cassini/Huygens is an odyssey in both time and space. It is also an odyssey in knowledge.
Is it possible that Man is in fact completing the circle? By probing the depths of space, he is really looking into himself. Technology meets the humanist. The engineer meets the creator. Science fiction becomes commercial reality. In every challenge, there is business potential. In his search for meaning and order, Man is travelling on a journey without an end. Around the next turn there will always be another.
Saab Aerospace Annual Report 1997