Changing lives and the security landscape – how NATO and partner countries are cooperating on advanced technologies

  • 11 Jun. 2021 -
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  • Last updated: 15 Jun. 2021 09:34

Advanced technologies are rapidly transforming the world – including the security landscape – and are one of the major agenda items of the 2021 NATO Summit in Brussels and the NATO 2030 initiative. With support from NATO’s Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Programme, civilian scientists and research institutions in NATO member and partner countries are working together to mitigate risks and embrace opportunities presented by advanced technologies, including emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs) such as quantum and autonomous systems.

EDTs are technologies that undergo rapid development and can be disruptive to existing systems such as critical infrastructure, supply chains, data networks and much more. NATO recognises both the risks and opportunities that they present, and is working to maintain the Alliance’s technological edge as well as to promote a norms-based use of new technologies. For years, the SPS Programme has been supporting research on advanced civil security-related technologies, including more than 50 projects on topics that are at the core of current discussions on EDTs. “The longstanding research activities of the SPS Programme are focused on practical scientific and technological cooperation, which creates a natural strong connection with the topic of EDTs,” explains Dr Deniz Beten, Senior SPS and Partnership Cooperation Advisor.

Protecting data in cyberspace with quantum technologies

Taking into account the imminent and complex threats posed by today’s cyber landscape, it is crucial for NATO and its partners to explore more secure ways of transmitting information. Professor Miroslav Vozňák is one of the scientists working on the recently launched QUANTUM5 project supported by the SPS Programme, which investigates quantum communication and quantum mechanics – the interactions of molecules, atoms or photons – to securely transmit data. As a Czech project co-director, Miroslav cooperates with colleagues from the Czech Republic and Bosnia and Herzegovina on integrating Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) in 5G cellular networks. QKD is a quantum communication system that allows data to be sent over classical networks, while the keys to decrypt the information are transmitted through quantum means. This technological novelty aims to examine how encrypted data can be transmitted without being decoded by a potential eavesdropper and will be tested against cyberattack scenarios at the university campus of the Technical University of Ostrava in the Czech Republic. “With this project, we want to examine adaptive ways of network organisation and management by assuring 5G high-speed networking and continuous provision of information-theoretical levels of security,” explains Miroslav.

Quantum technologies use the principles of quantum mechanics in practical applications. These technologies are expected to have a tremendous impact on society, radically disrupting communication, precise positioning, navigation and timing, sensing and detection. The SPS Programme has supported various research and development projects making use of quantum technology for practical security applications, such as quantum sensors and communications systems. Scientists and researchers have also investigated topics such as post-quantum cryptography – innovative cryptographic algorithms resistant even to attacks by quantum computers – and quantum-enabling solutions, which facilitate the application of quantum principles.

From robots to disaster management – how autonomous systems help NATO stay connected

The SPS Programme supports projects on autonomous systems – technologies that can function at least partially on their own, without direct human instruction – in all physical domains (ground, maritime, air and space). One of these initiatives is DAVOSS – a project led by scientists from Italy and Israel – that is developing a cloud-based architecture capable of integrating a large number of different sensors (cameras, thermal and noise sensors, unmanned systems, etc.). High-altitude balloons then control the sensors and manage teams of interconnected unmanned aerial vehicles as well as analyse and transmit the information collected. This set-up guarantees that even large areas with reduced human interaction and control can be monitored efficiently, proving potentially ground-breaking in crisis and disaster management scenarios and beyond. As Dr Fabrizio Granelli, a project co-director from Italy, clarifies, “our project is helping to identify existing gaps in today's technology related to drones communications and autonomous management. It paved the way to study future solutions for providing connectivity on Earth as well as on other planets such as Mars to automate network deployment and support of remote robots operation.”

Embracing the future and maintaining the Alliance’s technological edge

The disruptive potential of emerging technologies is much greater when they are combined in a novel manner. NATO’s SPS Programme is therefore actively supporting activities which bring together the perspectives of different technological research fields and can assist in identifying these challenges and proposing innovative solutions for the future. For instance, SPS published the proceedings of the September 2019 Cluster Workshop on Advanced Technologies, which provided a platform for scientists involved in SPS activities to present their achievements and highlight future technological trends.

SPS will continue looking at future technologies and building bridges between different scientific communities operating in the field of quantum and autonomy. In November 2021, an advanced research workshop will bring together scientists currently working on quantum physics and mathematicians and engineers working to implement quantum concepts. In the field of autonomy, SPS will support a series of workshops among experts from academic, technological and military communities to contribute to strategic foresight on the security implications of the drone age.