Dragons, drones, digital thread

As strange as it sounds, there is a link between James Cameron‘s 2009 “Avatar” and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Avatar was a marvel of American creativity and technology, and a rather visual example of the Western self-flagellation, while Ukraine war has become a miracle of human ingenuity and resilience, and a use case for the vultures smelling American decline.

Short of the timely Jack Sully intervention, the Pandora humanoids stood zero chance of survival in the first round, and all things being equal they are doomed in the long term. Short of extensive Western life support, Ukraine’s future looks rather bleak indeed.

Meet Jack Sully – a disgruntled Marine, who brought into the fight a perfect blend of intel, tactics, systems thinking and leadership. He won by discovering the way to shock-swarm the invaders with the natives, dragons and other animals, while the Ukrainian perseverance is hinging on their ability to dominate drone warfare at a previously unimaginable scale.

The present day Ukrainian battlefield is a nightmarish drone stalemate. Both sides employ the same consumer-grade Chinese drone models in reconnaissance, attack and auxiliary roles. Makers, pilots and their respective volunteer communities design, assemble and fly so-called kamikaze drones. That ecosystem demonstrates unique product design, supply chain and manufacturing perspectives.

  • The Chinese drones are being regularly augmented with the 3D-printed payload mounts; their various pieces are often upgraded or patched. The kamikaze drones are designed and produced essentially from scratch using a wide variety of purchased or custom-made components. Most popular mechanical and electrical CAD tools are there, with SolidWorks as a king of the steppe.
  • The drones continuous massive presence on the battlefield is a must, yet they are being disabled or destroyed by enemy countermeasures, friendly fire or weather in droves. Drones’ survivability across the battle-space depends on a pace of adaptation to the known or anticipated adversarial tech, timely replacement for the wrong or faulty components, and continuous bug fixing.
  • In turn, that pace of adaptation is critically dependent on a fast and efficient information sharing between makers and pilots across the entire ecosystem.
  • The hard-earned makers and pilots’ knowledge, and fine-tuned shops’ equipment and software installs become truly precious. Hence they are the prime targets for precision strikes and covert operations. Communication between geographically dispersed friendly players can be extremely dangerous or squarely impossible.
  • Components and materials are often procured via informal channels from China, with their authenticity, quality and quantity neither consistent nor guaranteed, especially for Ukraine.

Paradoxically, many American drone startups in their warm offices are not doing much better than the Ukrainians in their freezing trenches in terms of the digital thread paradigm. FAA regulation is a vague threat for the former and entirely irrelevant for the latter. The financial cost and human burden of the learning curve and administration required to maintain a modern PLM system doesn’t seem to be worth it for either of them. Those multi-cursed spreadsheets are a preferred choice for BOM management. Communication for the richer former occurs via Slack or Teams, and via assorted free apps for the poorer latter.

Jack Sully placed his winning bet on the innovative use of the Pandora planetary ecosystem’s interconnected information backbone. Every Pandora creature naturally grows that funny USB connector with a built-in standard data exchange protocol adapter. That system allows direct pairing to and subsequently taking over any nearby Pandora creature, and an unpaired broadcasting via sacred gateway to any such remote creature. Altogether it is a feat of extreme simplicity and ubiquity.

Funnily enough, our world has already evolved such a backbone, it is called instant messengers. These messengers represent extreme speed, efficiency, simplicity and ubiquity, and there is zero learning curve involved at all. By the way, Signal seems to be already the messenger of choice for security-conscious Ukrainian drone operators, and there is no escape from WeChat when dealing with Chinese suppliers.

According to some sages everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. In contrast, many contemporary enterprise applications are evolving perpetually more complex for the end-users and their IT maintainers. Perhaps it is high time to learn from Jack Sully, and simplify PLM landscape significantly, using the Ukrainian instant messengers ecosystem as a blueprint.

I envision that every edge node would need to go via certain standard zero-trust security based procedures, including real-time identity verification. This is where we come to bots and bot-based apps. Messenger bots simplicity is in their DNA, where each bot is usually responsible for a single operation of transferring and/or processing information. Among other things, that setup would enable access for the edge nodes to an all-encompassing PLM system like 3DExperience (including simulation and MBSE modules), to more narrowly specialized offerings like OpenBOM, to graph technologies, data analytics, and (naturally) generative AI platforms with various plugins – whenever funding, stars or Starlink permit.

Interested in dragons, drones or general digital thread brainstorming? Get in touch with Senticore!