Grant McDonald, Global Lead for Aerospace and Defence at KPMG discusses the development of artificial intelligence (AI) within the aerospace and defence sectors

“Thriving in an AI world” is the title of a new paper by business consultants KPMG which maps out the trajectory of the technology which has the potential to revolutionise both the aerospace and defence sectors. The research was informed by a survey of 950 decision makers, who were canvassed for their thoughts on the issues around AI.

Grant McDonald, Global Lead for Aerospace and Defence at KPMG, described how the Covid-19 pandemic had become the catalyst for change. “Covid has accelerated and really helped entities in a variety of sectors dealing with the new challenges of operating virtually,” he said.

Aerospace and defence “leading the pack” with new technologies

KPMG’s survey also found that aerospace and defence were “leading the pack” through their planned implementation or use of new technologies. McDonald explained: “We found that 93 per cent of our executives felt that the functionality of AI in that sector is really a focus area for them at this point in time. Maybe it’s not surprising when we look at aerospace specifically, we see the innovation occurring throughout the sector, and broadly the defence sector as well, in terms of autonomous vehicles, working on initiatives around new products and new types of data analytics that are so important.”

McDonald went on to explain that analysis and extraction of the data available within the aerospace could create meaningful information which could be input into the sector’s strategies and processes. Although the potential is there, he added that some decision-makers were cautious about the pace of change and the need to balance the greater functionality it offered with any inherent risks of compromisation.

Internal management key to keeping up with rapid pace of change

“The flip side of that, I think, is important, too,” he said. “The worry from the executives that we interviewed was that maybe it’s happening too quickly. And the issue there would be the internal management of the risks in AI, keeping pace with the ability to use it more and more frequently in industry and in particularly in A&D.”

Change management and readying the workforce for digital transformation was another key issue raised within the survey. “There’s the ability to do less mundane tasks as a human, said McDonald. “But I will say it’s important in AI as a whole, that the human machine interaction is something that we can’t forget about. So yes, we can train our algorithms to do whatever it is we’re looking for them to do, but if we don’t do it in a way that still encourages human interaction in terms of using that data and managing it in some ways, then we have a problem.”

Managing the risks within the defence sector, especially with regards to autonomous manned systems and cybersecurity, raised ethical questionson the use of AI in defence. McDonald added this was still, largely, an unregulated aspect to the technology.

McDonald explained: “When you look at defence, this is clearly where the risk is highest, in my view. I mean, you look at some of the areas where AI is being used in defence, I’ll say, broadly, it’s all about informed decision making. We’re gathering data, we’re trying to do it in real time, you know, we sometimes only have seconds to make a decision on something in the defence realm where we might have had at least hours if not days, or weeks, in past years.”

Big questions remain… but all the answers aren’t there yet

McDonald said there were still big questions remaining over AI, including whether it is can truly act as a substitute for human judgement. “Intelligent Automation side of this can only do so much and frankly, you know, thinking about the moral and the social and political implications of the technology is something clearly that we have to have the humans do…I don’t think all the answers are there yet, but it’s certainly a major debate around the sector at this point.”

McDonald has advised companies to take a ‘back to basics’ approach, implementing their own risk frameworks and broader governance as well as training the workforce to work with and identify any issues arising from a greater use of AI.

“My view is the future is here, it’s only going to change more rapidly. We certainly saw it through Covid – the acceleration in digital transformation, with frankly, everyone around the world, whether it was working virtually, to factories, taking on more of a 4.0 approach. Pushing everyone to say, ‘we’re in a position now where we have to work in different ways.’”



KPMG will be discussing AI, plus a host of other topics, at FIA Connect from July 13-15. Catch their speakers on:

  • Day 1 – Session 3 “Future Battle space: next generation defence,” moderated by Jim Adams, July 13, 2021, 1.30pm-2.30pm BST.
  • Day 1 – Session 4 “Future of space security,” moderated by Jono Anderson (KPMG), July 13, 2021, 3.30-4.30pm BST.
  • Day 3 – Session 3 “It’s time to invest in the future of digitalisation,” moderated by Martin Molloy of KPMG UK, July 15, 2021 1.30-2.30pm BST.

Click here to register free for FIA Connect now

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