DNP What's Past is Prologue A Look Inside the Future of Lockheed Martin

I receive a terse invite from Lockheed Martin that asks me to take a "glimpse into the future," but it doesn't mention whose future it is. I could write about what I know of the American defense contractor on the back of a postage stamp, but a cursory Google search fills in some of the blanks. The company reportedly receives around 7 percent of the US military budget on its own - and with that, my imagination runs rampant about what I'm likely to see. Dreaming of playing with laser pistols, intelligent cyborgs and giant robots, I tell them I'm coming.

A few days later, I turn up at the Honourable Artillery Company in London's glitzy financial district, a miniature castle that's dwarfed by the gleaming skyscrapers that surround it. In a way, the landscape is telling, since the occupants of those buildings can shoulder some of the blame for the current financial crisis - while across the street, Lockheed Martin is preparing its cost-cutting response.

Two hulking vehicles guard the entrance off a small courtyard, and through a window I see a plush room full of red velvet and leather, stuffed with computers and pensive, well-dressed operators. I wonder if I'm being vetted as I amble inside, my now-sodden socks and matted hair marking me out as unthreatening -- just as long as I promise not to get out my camera. As I'm ushered inside and the tour begins, I'm expecting to see jetpacks and robots, but the reality is much different. Not even this industry is immune to the world's financial problems, and my tour would reveal that its future lies decidedly in our past.

Build Whatever you Want

The tour guide for the night is the affable Dr. Paul Townsend, Lockheed's head of technology in the UK. At first blush, he makes for an unlikely geek, resembling a pro athlete rather than the professorial stereotype. The first demonstration he shows us is clearly one he's proud of -- a form of 3D printing that was conceived as a way to save a small fortune in material costs. Cost saving may be the reason for its genesis, but this technology could have the potential to change the way the company makes a wide variety of things in the future.

Manufacturing the highly specialized components the company uses requires ingots of raw materials (say, titanium) to be machined down to the correct shape. That process is enormously wasteful, and the company needs to reduce its resource-spending where it can. With that in mind, it's been investigating whether or not it's cheaper to employ 3D printing, which only uses what it needs, limiting waste.

Wire and Arc Additive Manufacturing (WAMM) is, in short, 3D printing with metals. While that technology isn't new, the current process is difficult and inflexible, requiring a static, vertical welding head that drops globules of hot metal down to create a shape. However, as the head can't move, it can only build the most basic of rigid structures, and would have difficulty dealing with anything as complex as a curved wall.

WAMM, which was developed in partnership with Cranfield University, uses a thin wire of titanium that is threaded through a movable arm. Melted at the tip, it can then create objects of any shape as long as they are not bigger than the reach of the mechanism. While it's currently a lot slower than traditional manufacturing, very little of the hugely expensive metal is wasted on the engineering room floor. Thanks to its flexibility, it's also capable of producing significantly more complex shapes than can currently be achieved with 3D printing.

Holding the objects, they have an almost alien quality thanks to the piecemeal nature of their construction. They feel more like rocks or calcium formations than something that's emerged from a foundry, given the thousands of droplets of metal that it took to put them together. However, if the company needs a component to be smooth, the pieces can be sanded down to be indistinguishable from a traditionally manufactured piece of hardware. While it currently only exists within the confines of a university laboratory, it could potentially herald a staggering revolution in manufacturing - not to mention the environmental and financial benefits that accompany it. However, this demonstration was something of an outlier during the tour, with many of the other projects on show having been cooked up in response to a more pressing threat - the dwindling size of procurement budgets.

The iPod Tank

DNP What's Past is Prologue A Look Inside the Future of Lockheed Martin

A break in the rain means we can now go outside to meet an unnamed soldier who is standing proudly in front of a Warrior Tank. The Warrior Tracked Armored Vehicle (to give it its proper title) is the British army's frontline tank, and has been the primary transport for combat troops since the early '80s. Why then, is hardware invented before my parents' marriage (let alone my own birth) being heralded as the future?

In response to the worsening financial crisis, the government began reorganizing the army to make it smaller, more flexible and, crucially, cheaper. The program was eventually named "Future Force 2020," and as part of it, spending on heavy weaponry was cut while emphasis was placed on upgrading current hardware. As such, the aging fleet of tanks, now into its third decade of service, is in dire need of a refit, and Lockheed won the £642 million ($1 billion) contract to ensure it's battle-ready all the way through 2040.

Lockheed's testing manager, Steve Timms, described the challenge as trying to reinvent the traditional tank hardware to behave "much more like an iPod." The company has developed a new series of modular systems that can be swapped in and out to change its functionality over time. In his mind, this functionality is analogous to "downloading apps to make your iPod do different things." As such, depending on the need (or threat), different technologies like an anti-IED (improvised explosive device) or electronic warfare platform can be added and removed in a matter of hours.

On the nuts-and-bolts side, the Warrior is gaining an improved forward cannon, which, for the first time, can fire multiple types of shells for "hard" and "soft" targets. To balance out such power, it's getting a new stability system that negates the recoil traditional tanks suffer from. It's at this point that our anonymous soldier chips in, pragmatically explaining that a current tank battle between moving targets is "about as accurate as a drive-by shooting." However, with the addition of a new computer targeting system, it can calculate the tank's own movement, terrain, the enemy unit's travel and the recoil factor to vastly improve its accuracy.

In an effort to provide crews with as much situational data as possible, the refreshed tanks are now lined with cameras and sensors. That way, transported soldiers (up to five per vehicle) know what they're about to encounter - whereas, previously, they leapt into the unknown. The crew stations inside the vehicle are now networked, allowing commanders and turret-gunners to share information and offer a level of redundancy should a system fail.

The Loyal Robotic Mule

 What's Past is Prologue A Look Inside the Future of Lockheed Martin

Our nameless soldier now steps forward to explain a project he's clearly more excited about - a smaller vehicle that's stationed beside the Warrior. The soldier, who is clearly speaking from experience, tells us modern troops need to carry a huge amount of gear on their backs, but that means they're far less effective during attacks. If they come under fire in the field, they're meant to gymnastically leap to cover and return fire - however, the sheer weight on their shoulders means soldiers could do little beyond "dropping to the floor where they stood." Naturally, that's not a useful combat tactic, since it's unlikely they'll be given the time to free themselves from their burdens - all the while presenting an easy target for their opponents. The solution? The SMSS, a diesel-powered pack mule that's capable of carrying troops' gear like a robotic Sancho Panza.

The six-wheeled truck carries up to 544kg (around 1,200 pounds) of gear over 200km (124 miles) on a single tank of fuel. Unlike other transports, the SMSS straddles the line between autonomous car and self-aware robot, thanks to the bank of sensors and cameras that cover its face and let it self-navigate, make decisions and even find its way home. In ordinary circumstances, it can be directed with an Xbox 360 controller, sent on missions with an Android tablet or even lock onto a single soldier and follow them wherever they go, like a terrifyingly loyal dog.

Its autonomy stretches as far as being able to find its own way past obstacles it cannot traverse. That way, if the soldier it's following hops over a chasm or through a narrow passage, it'll dash off to find the easiest route around. Thanks to its hefty hydraulic drives, up to two wheels on either side can be destroyed and it will still function. It can also be pressed into service as a medical transport, conveying two stretcher-bound patients (and a medic) to safety. It's currently being actively deployed in combat situations as a nighttime ferry. Thanks to its quiet engine and night vision, it can also carry supplies to forward positions from a main base without an escort.

Saving Money in the Simulator

Back inside, it's time to look at the company's simulators, which are designed to save money by reducing the amount of time (and fuel) troops have to log in real hardware. While the simulated tank battle may resemble something out of the halcyon days of DOS games, the software behind it is extraordinarily complex - modeling every element of the action, from the behavior of enemy tanks to the movement of the flora and fauna. Then it's time to take a look inside the claustrophobic vehicle simulator itself, a white box surrounded with cameras on the outside, its tiny cabin packed with screens and controls. While the company declined to go into specifics as to the hardware power both were using, I could spot a few brand names on our travels.

In fact, Lockheed Martin uses a surprisingly large amount of consumer hardware in its everyday activities, where you'd expect to see over-engineered, custom gear. During the tour, I spot Dell desktops and servers, Panasonic Toughbooks and a table of 24-inch Wacom Cintiqs being set up for another exhibit. The primary joystick in the simulator is remarkably similar to the Logitech 942, and Townsend spoke openly of "human factors" that enable users to pick up skills faster because we've grown up with this technology - explaining the use of Xbox and PlayStation controllers. As such, many of the newest recruits have logged hundreds (if not thousands) of hours on their consoles, and so training reflects this. It's also beneficial from a cost perspective, since such tools have been designed by Microsoft and Sony to withstand the violent excesses of jam-smeared children and are so cheap (in military terms) that they're essentially disposable.

Eyes in the Sky

DNP What's Past is Prologue A Look Inside the Future of Lockheed Martin

Our next stop on the tour is to meet David Stanton, representing the company's (reported) £1.15 billion ($1.9 billion) contract to upgrade the British navy and air force's Merlin helicopters. In the same way that the Warriors are being refitted to avoid splashing out on new tanks, these vehicles are being tweaked to save £500 million ($805 million) replacing the soon to be mothballed fleet of Sea King choppers.

In my mind, this seems a little odd, purely because you'd have thought he'd be pushing to deliver a new vehicle rather than get involved in the messy process of dealing with another company's (Westland at the time) hardware. When I ask him, he seems a little resigned to the answer, saying that Lockheed operates "in the shadow of the global financial crisis" and that it's been forced to make concessions. So, rather than building new craft, it's doing its best to package new technology in a way that nations across the globe can afford.

The company's challenge is to turn the Merlin, an anti-submarine and search-and-rescue vehicle, into a craft that can also take over the Sea King's airborne surveillance and control duties without breaking the bank. As such, Lockheed is adding capacity for modular systems that can "roll on and roll off" (RORO) the craft depending on the mission's need. It's here that the company is demonstrating the first system to accompany the platform; Vigilance. It's a new radar setup that turns the helicopter into an all-seeing eye, capable of surveying the 360-degree space around it in order to direct fighter planes in combat.

What's Past is Prologue A Look Inside the Future of Lockheed Martin

It uses a pair of radar arrays, each with a 120-degree field of view, from Lockheed's competitor and occasional partner, Northrop Grumman. The array itself is a steel hoop around 20 inches in diameter, the surface of its aperture teeming with rectangular rods. The hardware is put into a fiberglass pod, which hangs on either side of the choppers fuselage, on a gimbal, that lets it turn to cover the extra 60 degrees (for a total of 180 degrees of coverage each). The range of the equipment is classified for military reasons, but a demonstration showed that a helicopter, so equipped, could hang back and be the eyes and ears of fighter planes battling ground or aerial targets around it.

While it's being tested and implemented over the next year as part of this program, Vigilance can be fitted to any vehicle that can accommodate the two control consoles and supply the necessary power. The hardware, which ships on a pallet, includes 4-foot-high steel boxes with a built-in desk that sports a rubberized keyboard and rollerball mouse. Operators can watch a 24-inch primary monitor above their heads and two 10-inch displays mounted at eye level. The left of the two smaller screens is touch-enabled, offering customized controls, and the right is a secondary display that lets you see detailed information not visible above.

Once the program has been completed, these helicopters will become the airborne equivalent of a socket wrench - capable of undertaking a number of previously impossible tasks. Stanton has said that while the timescale will vary depending on the specific make and model of each craft, the company is confident it can upgrade a Merlin in less than two weeks, and after that the RORO systems can be changed in "around two hours."

The Real, Real-Time Simulation

What's Past is Prologue A Look Inside the Future of Lockheed Martin

The final stop on our tour is a pair of software projects that, uncharacteristically, aren't concerned with saving money as much as providing information. The Land Environment Air Picture Provision (LEAPP) is a £100 million ($160 million) system that uses ground-based radar stations to give mission commanders a view of their environment. Development began in 2008, and the first systems are being delivered to the army at some point this year. The trucks carrying the stations are the size of a shipping container and can either move around under their own steam or be airlifted by a Chinook helicopter. They provide mission commanders with real-time data, enabling intelligence staff to mark friendly and hostile craft, coordinate assets and see the whole landscape as if it was cooked up inside a computer. In effect, all of that hardware has one purpose: to create an isometric view of the battlefield as if it was a real-time simulation.

When I commented on the similarity between this and a game like Command & Conquer, the firm pointed out that operators are deeply aware this isn't a game. However, Lockheed's Systems Engineering Manager, Michael Harper, does concede that game design has heavily influenced the software's development. In his mind, "since people come from a world of Google Maps," it's faster and cheaper to embrace the user interface Google developed - because to do otherwise would require jarring retraining.

Harper then directs us to the other end of his exhibit, where he is demonstrating Automated Sense and Warn (AS&W), a system that has been active since 2008. It's a defensive system that uses a series of radar scanners around the perimeter of military bases (like Camp Bastion, the British military base in Afghanistan that was recently attacked by Taliban forces) to watch for incoming threats. If it detects a mortar shell or rocket on approach, it sounds an alarm in the area where it's expected to land. While it can only give a few seconds of notice before impact, it's already proven its worth in the field - with Harper saying that at one (unnamed) base, it's increased survival rates by 80 percent.

Some may be surprised to learn that the operating system that enables both of these vital programs is actually Windows XP. Unsurprisingly, Lockheed's insistence on using off-the-shelf components is both a benefit and a burden in situations like this. While it can rely upon its deep, highly secretive partnerships with companies in the industry, it's also a victim to those product's flaws. It has to contend with the lifecycle of the software - giving the company an extra headache as it tries to maintain support for the OS when Microsoft turns off the lights in 2014.

The Shape of Things to Come

As I leave, the heavens open once again, and as I dash back to the tube, I'm left wondering what the company is trying to show me. Of course, the headline here is that Lockheed is offering taxpayers value for money, but that's not what's caught my eye. It's certainly interesting to note just how much the likes of RTS games and Google maps influences its software decisions - as if the worlds of consumer and military tech are somehow merging. Given that these are just the secrets the company feels comfortable showing off to journalists, it's clear that the really juicy projects remain hidden behind closed doors - I just hope that they're not as fixated on our past as some of these have been.

Images courtesy of Lockheed Martin

This piece originally appeared in Distro #65.