By Ron Lloyd, Vice-Admiral (Ret’d) 35th Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy

“Look after your sailors and they will look after you.”

As I spoke to the most recent cohort of exceptionally talented young naval warfare officers aspiring to command one of Her Majesty’s Canadian Warships, I hoped that these words would resonate most. I continued, offering that “the more you sweat in peacetime, the less you bleed in war” and “train as you fight”.

What I didn’t say, was that no matter the level of their ability, success hinged on the proper maintenance of their critical counterpart: the warship.

I refrained from mentioning that not because it wasn’t important, or un-inspiring, but because it should not be their concern. A well-maintained warship – capable of executing their every command – should be the very least they expect from their leadership. This has always been significant, but particularly now with the recent reduction of Fleet sizes.

Scarcity has put an incredibly high premium, on high readiness warships.

Data as a Force Multiplier

In 2016, when I assumed command of the Royal Canadian Navy, I had three years of experience as the Deputy Commander trying to leverage digital to the RCN’s advantage. During that time, it became apparent that data needed to be leveraged to enable evidence-based decision making across force management, force development, force support, force generation, and force employment.

Similarly, it was also abundantly clear that leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning was going to be a force multiplier across the spectrum of operations. I firmly believed then, as I do now, that becoming a digital organization would lead to more effective resource management, enable a reallocation of resources to higher priority force generation activities, and would have a direct impact on improving readiness. It would also ensure interoperability with our closest allies and partners as the digital architecture will be critical to seamless interoperability. Equally as important, it would demonstrate to young, digital-savvy Canadians that they were joining a progressive, technologically forward-looking organization.

Billion$, with a “B”

Of all the areas modern technology could transform, I was particularly focused on the billions of dollars that are spent in force support, specifically the maintenance of warships and the supply chains that sustain them.

One of the biggest challenges that the RCN leadership confronted in its digital pursuit, was trying to drive an innovation culture that embraced the new frontier of possibilities. The RCN, unfortunately, was not much different than other large bureaucracies. Simply put, any efforts to be innovative were quickly dispatched by the bureaucratic antibodies that exist to ensure the status quo was maintained. As a result, the leadership needed to communicate, communicate, communicate to ensure the organization appreciated that we, the leadership, “weren’t kidding”.

It worked.

Let The Demo Begin

Live demonstrations, on stage, are without a doubt risky, but if I wasn’t to take the risk, then how could I expect those I was leading to take the leap and embrace the concept?

At an industry conference, I had the opportunity to demonstrate the art of the possible – backed by the RCN’s recent commitment and investment in intelligent technology infrastructure. Our use case was the completion of a maintenance routine with Augmented Reality (AR) goggles, guided by our inaugural use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) – the RCN’s equivalent of Apple’s “Siri”. The demonstrations was a success, and even if it had not succeeded, I would have still characterized it as a success. Why, because it would have allowed us to identify what went wrong and fix it, in addition to demonstrating my commitment to “not being afraid to fail”. The demonstrations set the stage nicely for an articulation of the RCN use case for material and logistical support.

We begin in the Machinery Control Room (MCR), with an engineering watch-keeper monitoring the plant, which identifies the operator with facial recognition. This data is useful for documenting watch keeping hours and could be of further benefit in downstream trouble shooting for recurring faults/issues. Using a predictive maintenance algorithm, the Machinery Management System (MMS), notifies the watchkeeper that a specific system has only 48 hours of safe operations before failure. The MMS then recommends the appropriate planned maintenance routine to the operator, and identifies the required parts needed to execute. In this instance, four parts are in shipboard stores and the fifth requires onboard 3D printing.

The young apprentice then virtually searches a nearby store room for the necessary parts.

Proceeding to the engineering space with all needed parts, the sailor completes critical maintenance on the system. Once the routine is completed, data is automatically saved and updates the ship’s planned maintenance records on the deployed instance of the Enterprise Resource Planning System operating in a disconnected mode which is synced up with shoreside support when communications are available. In addition, the MMS then makes the system available for operations.

In the background, the intelligent, connected business suite automatically triggers replenishment of the consumed parts. Depending on the ship’s location, the replacement parts would be strategically sourced and delivered either at sea, at the next port, or upon return to home port.

Collaboration, Commitment, and Innovation

The advantages that would accrue from these digital solutions I believe are readily obvious: improved readiness, enhanced decision making, better use of limited resources, interoperability and a better quality of life for our maintainers and technicians at sea.

Although, I have been retired for two years now, I am very heartened by the commitment of both RCN leadership and industry to leverage digital technologies to enhance national security. I am as convinced today, as I was in 2019, that embracing a digital culture and turning the art of the possible into a reality is the key to future success afloat and ashore.


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