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Robotisation, AI could help protect critical infrastructures at sea, Fincantieri’s boss says

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The military and civilian sectors need to cooperate to build a network of ships, submarines and drones to protect critical infrastructures, the CEO of Fincantieri, one of the world’s largest shipbuilding groups, told EURACTIV.

Systems such as drones and submarines, working with other sensors aboard the ships “will collect data, then create a data lake, transformed into information, then transferred into decision, all through artificial intelligence algorithms,” Pierroberto Folgiero said.

“The ship will become a system of systems,” he argued.

The need to protect critical infrastructures has come to the forefront of political decision-making over the past year, as Russia has shown it is ready to target the nervous system of institutions in Ukraine by aiming at hospitals, power plants, or institutions.

The destruction of the NordStream pipeline last autumn sparked worries among Europeans about other vulnerabilities and led to increasing monitoring of the infrastructures.

The EU and NATO set up coordination platforms and the military alliance’s members agreed to increase surveillance and anticipate risks.

Fincantieri, also known for its innovation, aims to lead the development of technologies and methods to surveil essential infrastructures at sea, such as internet undersea cables, wind farms or pipelines.

Robotisation key

According to Folgiero, ships will in the future have to be one of the elements of data collection at sea.

“A ship needs another leg, to procure data,” he said, “which means, you need more sensors, more automation, in order to collect those data physically” to work with the ship itself.

The Italian businessman insisted on the need to use unmanned drones and submarines in the data collection.

That choice “is a matter of effectiveness and efficiency” based on the size and number of items, he said.

This working method is employed in Norway, where VARD, a company in which Fincantieri has invested, has proposed “lightly crewed or uncrewed” and “optionally crewed” ships to navigate the waters around wind farms. They also do inspection, maintenance, repair and light construction remotely.

The North Sea has been identified as a sore spot for undersea critical infrastructures, which Russia is spying on, Dutch intelligence agencies have reported.

Unmanned work

Folgiero’s reflection is also based on the idea that robots can travel faster and in more remote places than humans.

“To use a person to monitor an infrastructure means spending a lot of money, so why would you want to go yourself when you can send a robot? It is cheap, it is workable,” he said when asked about the advantages of using drones.

“Robotisation is the name of the game.”

Although Folgiero praised the role drones would play in this scenario, he said people should not “have the perception that we want to be drone fabricators”.

The future of the company lies in being the system integrator, he added, which he defined as “to provide solutions, connecting dots on available on best available technologies”.

“We want to be the system integrator of choice for complex requirements, then it’s up to us to decide what to produce, what to buy, what we will risk commercially because we will guarantee the effectiveness of the solution,” he said.

Asked how fast and how many drones one can introduce into the data collection’s network of systems, he refrained from giving numbers and said: “It will be a progression, it is not easy”.

“The concept of underwater networks needs new protocols: the wireless we know in the dry world does not work [underwater]. You have to create an underwater network.”

In that regard, Fincantieri signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Italian company C.A.B.I. Cattaneo, specialised in the design, development, and supply of underwater vehicles for the naval special forces.

This came with the need “for the assessment of commercial and industrial cooperation in the field of underwater vehicles and their integration with larger vessels”, the company announced in early August.

The military alone is not good enough

Fincantieri’s boss hopes to take advantage of civilian innovation of artificial intelligence to process the data collected at sea.

“In the artificial intelligence domain, according to me, (…) the civil world will cross-fertilise the military,” Folgiero said.

“The reason is that artificial intelligence was not proven by the military, since the intelligence needs data and the data lake is the internet,” he said in reference to open-source intelligence, which is accessible and can be used by the military.

On the other hand, classified military information in different nations makes sharing the data more difficult.

[Edited by Alexandra Brzozowski/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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