Top Tech Trends for 2014: Battlefield of Things and Beyond

22 January 2014

Every year, as things start to wind down and thoughts turn to the holidays, the Internet is flooded with blog posts titled "The Top 5 (or 10 or 12.5 …) Trends of the Past Year." And, of course, during the first few weeks of January, it's all about predicting the trends that will dominate the new year.

I'm a technology nut and gadget geek, so my RSS reader was clogged with such posts predicting the top technology trends for 2014. I think I'd be breaking some unspoken rule if I didn’t come up with my own list of the top tech trends for 2014 and how I think they may impact the military and aerospace market. Of course, I've waited until the middle of January, so I can steal from everyone else's list ...

You will be completely and utterly sick and tired of hearing about the "Internet of Things" by the end of 2014 (or perhaps by the end of this post).

The Internet of Things will take off in a big (mainstream) way in 2014. Every man, his uncle and his dog wants a piece of this. Companies are releasing all sorts of new or reinvented things and connecting them to the Internet. 2014 looks like the year when regular, non-techie people will jump on board in droves and start controlling their lights, garage doors and toasters with their iPhones. But humans controlling things is just the beginning.

All of this is not new to those in the military and aerospace market. The military has been building its Battlefield of Things for some years. Armored vehicles, aircraft, naval vessels and weapons are no longer just tanks, planes, boats and guns any more - they are all sensors in a connected Battlefield of Things. Sensor networks and sensor fusion are now commonplace. We here at GE Intelligent Platforms are constantly asked for smaller and smaller switches and routers to embed into all sorts of military equipment. I'm often baffled as to why some of this equipment needs connectivity in the first place, but you can never underestimate what the collected data might tell you.

But the money is not really in the things

Sure, in the short term there will be some money in adding Internet connectivity to all sorts of mundane things. People will buy them. Your neighbor will brag that he's down with all that IoT stuff because he can turn on his sprinkler system with a smartphone. But as with many of these trends, the real money is not in the hardware. It’s the software and services that provide the real value. The promise of the IoT is a world where machines talk to machines and make decisions without human input. Your irrigation system will be cooler than your neighbor's because you subscribe to a service that has access to moisture data from sensors buried in your soil and knows the weather forecast information for your exact location, turning on the sprinklers automatically and using the least amount of water necessary.

Once again, military technologists are ahead of the IoT curve when it comes to machine-to-machine communications and decision-making. Both DARPA and certain defense contractors have developed very advanced software and tools to enable autonomous vehicles and robots—enabling unmanned aerial vehicles to land or refuel by themselves, for example. There are, of course, certain machines in the military that we never want making decisions by themselves (hint: they go "BANG") and there is always the question of who owns, operates or controls those machines. There is still a lot of work to be done on the services that support a military Battlefield of Things.

More things means more data.

It's pretty difficult to talk about the Internet of Things (sick of it yet?) without mentioning big data. And with the explosion of connected things, we are talking about really big data or “extreme” data. Collecting that data is not difficult. We have a pretty good handle on transmitting and storing that data as well. Turning all that data into valuable, actionable information represents the real challenge. I expect 2014 will be a launch pad for all sorts of companies—large and small—who can analyze and crunch all that data. GE got ahead of this trend a few years back and has developed some advanced software and tools for customers in the industrial, energy and medical segments.

The defense industry (more specifically, the intelligence agencies) have been dealing with big data for many years. The overwhelming issue for the defense industry is access to the data. Much of the usefulness and value to be found in data analytics comes from correlating seemingly irrelevant pieces of data and finding trends. This relies on the data being available, open and shared amongst users, tools and organizations. Military forces, intelligence agencies, law enforcement and other big government organizations are really not keen on that whole sharing thing.

Hey—did anyone shop at Target over the holidays? (Cybercrime hurts real people.)

As we connect more things and generate more data, our networks are becoming more complex and, as a result, more difficult to secure. I spend a lot of time reading about cybersecurity and talking to industry experts about network security in general. Some of this stuff is scary—very, very scary. Yet it seems to me that the mainstream media and most of the public is still oblivious to the scope of the threat. I’m amazed that people still seem to think of a hacker as some kid eating Twinkies in his bedroom, rather than the thousands of state-paid operatives sitting in front of computers in China or the crime gangs operating in Russia. Unfortunately, I think 2014 could be the year where large-scale hacks like Target really shake people up and get their attention.

We keep hearing various individuals in the government ringing the alarm bells and we are seeing a modest and steady investment in cybersecurity, but the reality is that the speed and agility of the threat keeps outpacing our defenses. As the public and business embraces the Internet of Things, there will be millions and millions of new back doors for hackers to exploit. Military leaders have no choice but to factor in all of the public sector risk (which is out of their control) when planning cyber defenses.

Wearable Technology

I haven't worn a watch in many years—there’s no need when I have my smartphone at all times. But you know what? It’s starting to become a real pain taking my phone out every time I need to check the time or to check the subject of a notification. I get the feeling that I will be buying some sort of smartwatch in 2014. Either that, or I'll save up enough money to buy Google Glass and walk around town with my own 24/7 heads-up display. Every tech trends blog predicts 2014 as the year of wearable technology. I look at it a couple of ways. The watch / smartglass gadgets provide a convenient information retrieval and delivery mechanism. "OK, Google. Where is the closest Chinese restaurant?" But they also represent data-collection devices. They turn the user into yet another sensor on the (wait for it …) Internet of Things. It will probably take Apple to release tech that people actually think looks cool to wear and, just like smartphones, the tech will become a fashion statement. But as I mentioned earlier, the real magic will happen when companies start offering the software and services that bring true value to people's lives.

Of course, today's modern soldier is used to wearing technology. Sometimes, the computers, camera, radios and sensors along with the batteries to power it all weigh more than the food and ammunition the soldier needs to carry into an engagement. Just like in other technology areas, large-scale adoption by the general public will help drive the technology further—reducing cost and weight, for example. And just like everything else in the Internet of Things, I suspect the data collected from all these human sensors and their wearable tech could be very useful to various agencies looking to exploit it. (We'll leave it at that.)

There are other tech trends of course. 3D printing is really set to take off as well as driverless cars and public -ector drones. Android on its path to world dominance (especially as the home-automation market heats up) and advances in software have defined networking and cloud computing. But I wanted to share what I think will be the top five trends in relation to the military sector.

Oh, and in case I forgot to mention it, I think the Internet of Things will be a pretty big deal …

Top image via Tech News Daily
Bottom image via GE Reports
Rubin Dhillon

Rubin has spent over 20 years in the embedded computing world, in roles ranging from support to sales to product management and even garbage collector. He experienced the huge growth (and crash) of the telecom industry, and he's spent time dabbling in medical, industrial, transportation and military applications. Rubin figured he has so many stories to tell, he should get into marketing and so he is now our VP of Marketing. Connect with Rubin on LinkedIn and he'll explain the "garbage collector" story…