The much-delayed 31st iteration of the ITEC exhibition and conference will take place at the ExCel in London 26-28 April. MS&T’s Dim Jones and Andy Fawkes discussed the aspirations of the organisers, Clarion Defence and Security, with their Chairman, Air Vice-Marshal (Ret’d) Gary Waterfall.

The rebranded International Training Technology Exhibition and Conference (IT2EC) has – for reasons of pandemic and politics – endured something of a troublesome renaissance. Billed as “Europe’s primary forum where stakeholders from military, government, industry and academia connect and share knowledge about training, simulation and education”, it was originally planned for April 2020 in London and cancelled when the ExCel became the makeshift London Nightingale Hospital. IT2EC 2021 was scheduled for May in Seville, Spain; however, a lack of local political support caused a rescheduling to Rotterdam, The Netherlands in September 2021. Covid-related travel uncertainty then caused a further delay, and relocation to this April at the ExCel, where the 2022 show would probably have taken place anyway.

A lot has happened since ITEC Stockholm (2019), and it is appropriate to reflect this in the 2022 title, ‘Navigating Rapidly Evolving Technologies for Training and Education’, and in the sub-themes ‘Expanding on Digital Twins’, ‘The Risks of AI’ and ‘Human and Machine Learning’. 

Another change, of course, is the appointment of Air Vice-Marshal (Ret’d) Gary Waterfall (hereinafter referred to as GW) in succession to RAdm Simon Williams, and the different perspective he brings to the table. 

Leaps in technology and the opportunity to talk to industry at all levels, both primes and small/medium enterprises, have convinced GW that no one company has the complete training solution; the best ideas are likely to spring from JVs or collaborative ventures, and be applied in diverse fields, including accelerated maintenance training, medical simulation, and enhanced realism provided by haptics.

Asked to comment on the possibility that technology is not being developed to meet identified training needs, but rather training processes are being created to take advantage of available tech, GW observed that one has to be able to see the tech in order to see what meets the training need: “The tech is out there – the trick is to hook into it at the right moment, and the best solution may be a blend of technologies; shows like I/ITSEC (last December in Orlando) open peoples’ eyes to what is possible – which, itself, is constantly changing. That being the case, at what stage do we call a time-out and go firm on a requirement, or do we accept that we are entering into a long-term spiral partnership?”

“The UK MoD is committed to delivering 25% of contracts by value to SMEs from this year,” he continued, “and shows like DSEI [Clarion’s Defence and Security Equipment International conference] give SMEs the oxygen they deserve. SMEs can either stand alone, or incorporate their tech into a collaborative enterprise; Clarion’s role is to ensure that DSEI and IT2EC are not just one-off events, but that there is a continuum through other media such as webinars.”

Live, Virtual, Hybrid?

Since the start of the pandemic, the simulation and training world has necessarily experimented with virtual and hybrid event formats. Clarion have learned valuable lessons from DSEI, I/ITSEC and other shows and conferences, and will apply them to achieve the optimum arrangement for IT2EC, although the disparity of scale between it and the other two is acknowledged. 

DSEI was the ‘first out of the blocks’ as a post-Covid live event which, given the uncertainties at the time, was a courageous decision. It was accepted that, due to UK or other national restrictions, not everyone would be able to attend in person and, therefore, Clarion had to deliver elements of a hybrid show without presenting potential attendees with an excuse not to come. All those who did attend in person were enthusiastic about a return to face-to-face meetings, but it was accepted that not everyone was comfortable with attending live, and the organisers therefore had to provide remote alternatives. 

Rolling forward to IT2EC 2022, Clarion know that they need to prepare for a blended environment, which will enable those who cannot attend to participate remotely in a live show, while dealing with the issue of global time zones and achieving it all within finite resources. Virtual platforms such as Teams and Zoom work well when all participants are remote, but not so well when the majority are live and the minority remote. 

GW also believes that the efficacy of remote meetings diminishes over time, and that inter-personal relationships need periodic “refreshment” through face-to-face encounters to remain effective. Recording conference events and making them available for ‘watch on demand’ offsets time-zone issues and also allows live attendees multiple simultaneous options. Live streaming also allows, for instance, exhibitors to listen to keynote speeches while on the show floor. All these facilities have resource and capacity implications, and Clarion are keeping their options open for IT2EC.

The pandemic has made transatlantic travel problematic, and it remains to be seen whether this will manifest itself in an increased insularity in the attitudes of North American companies – particularly the smaller ones – concerning future business in Europe. Conversely, it could serve to focus the attention of European companies on opportunities closer to home. 

As regards IT2EC, some companies have already committed to attending while others, understandably, are hedging their bets. While IT2EC remains primarily a defence event, technologies such as VR/AR/XR cut across all industries, and Clarion are happy to let it spin out and see what defence can learn from other disciplines, such as medical or transport.

The Innovation Mindset

MS&T also sought the views of Rusmat Ahmed, now by default ITEC’s longest-serving Conference Chair. Rusmat added these observations: “2020 was marked by great innovation resulting from the pandemic, for example the use of VR HMDs, and militaries at grass roots level seized the initiative and just tried things out without waiting for some new operating concept or funded programme. You could say that this wasn't technological innovation, in that nothing new was invented specifically for this market, but brave moves were made to use what you can buy in the High Street or read about in magazines, or to recreate the game-based technology you or your kids use. The innovation was more culture- and mindset-based; now things are more mainstream in that these creative ideas are formalised or subsumed into existing programmes, and that's a healthy outcome.”

Ahmed continued: “Technology progress has made ideas such as VR/AR/MR/XR mainstream. Another year on, the technology choice is even greater so there's more to learn and understand to make the right choices. The same applies to AI and Machine Learning: it's everywhere – but how much do you need, and what for, and how do you avoid making AI/ML mistakes?”

“For IT²EC 2022, the body of knowledge (and industry's ability to explain things) will have developed – both in the conference rooms and on the exhibition floor,” he surmised. “After a great turnout at I/ITSEC 2021, you sense that April 2022 is the right time to re-engage on these topics.”

Masters of AI

On the subject of AI, and the associated ‘risks’ to which one of the conference sub-themes refers, GW drew on an analogy of the development of defensive aids in aircraft, and the relationship between sensors, aircrew and systems: 

  • from the raw ’bleeps and squeaks’ of 3rd-Gen radar warning receivers, which the aircrew were expected to interpret and translate into appropriate threat and counter-measure; 
  • through 4th-Gen, which analysed the threat and automatically deployed chaff and flares, but left the pilot to fly the appropriate defensive manoeuvre; 
  • to 5th-Gen, where the location of the threat is displayed and the defensive manoeuvre directed in HUD or HMD. 

At all stages, the developing AI is required to deliver what we need, not tell us what we need – a ‘clear box, not a black box’ – and in relation to which we are masters, not slaves.              

Politics and Polemics of Defence Shows

Looking further ahead than this spring, GW confirmed that the intent is to alternate IT²EC between London and other European cities. The success of such events depends crucially on support from the host nation, but the venues and facilities are often owned by local authorities, some of which are politically indisposed towards military shows. This was the case in Seville and, to a limited extent, in Stuttgart, although the show there went ahead. It was also the reason for terminating visits to Köln, which had previously been a good venue. 

Notwithstanding its training focus, IT²EC is also subject to disruption from anti-military movements, and we have seen demonstrations (albeit almost entirely peaceful) in Köln, Stuttgart, Prague, Stockholm, Rotterdam, Luxembourg and London. 

In response to the suggestion that the financial impact of the pandemic might make hosting events like IT2EC more attractive, GW’s view was that we will always face political obstacles, regardless of commercial imperatives, and Clarion’s role was to ensure that we were “pushing on open doors” rather than being the target of protesters. 

Good facilities and transport links, and a compliant environment, were key to promoting a ‘feel-good’ atmosphere and, although the list of such locations might not be huge, there are still some out there. GW was happy to report that IT2EC 2023 would be held at The Ahoy in Rotterdam, scene of the successful 2017 event. 

It is worth reflecting for a moment on the original aim of ITEC (first held in Birmingham in 1990), how it has progressed to the current format, and to what extent it continues to provide the intended forum. We have seen a perceptible overall decline in the size of the exhibition and the numbers attending the conference. This may have been due in part to tightening budgets following the global financial crisis of 2008, but the slow recovery from that has not been reflected in a resurgence in attendance at ITEC. There have been positive fluctuations, London being the mostly consistently popular venue, and the attendance numbers have been influenced in part by the support of the host nation military. 

The conference layout of three ‘igloos’ and a ‘keynote and plenary’ theatre, first successfully employed in London in 2016 after a less auspicious attempt the previous year in Prague, has proved popular, and enabled multiple conference streams although each delegate can, of course, only attend one at a time, with interspersed visits to the exhibition. Recording and ‘on-demand’ playback will enhance both experiences. The longer-term future of the exhibition may be more uncertain, and there is a perception of a shift in focus towards the conference and away from the show floor. 

The 2022 event is a few weeks away yet, and travel uncertainty may have prompted some companies to delay committing. The tally of exhibitors as we write is around 70; this includes many SMEs and some first-time participants, both of which are encouraging, but the absence thus far of many regular attendees, particularly the ‘heavy-hitters’, is less so. Nevertheless, Clarion are optimistic, and estimate the floor plan to be about 75% full, which is normal for this stage of the proceedings. 

Interestingly, a significant number of the SMEs are from consumer tech and corporate training backgrounds, but looking to develop into the defence market. The aims of exhibitors may vary, but we would suggest that they include: showcasing own new products; seeing what competitors and potential partners are displaying; conducting B2B with other industry participants; engaging directly with military customers; and, in the case of the larger companies, maintaining a visible presence, even if not a substantial one. 

All of these aims would be enhanced by a larger show, and a company’s decision to attend may therefore boil down to an analysis of ROI. The I/ITSEC 2021 experience indicates that all participants are happy to be back to live events, and that virtual and hybrid alternatives are not a determining factor. 

In the hope of a continuing and sustainable return to ‘business as we used to know it’, Clarion and MS&T look forward to seeing you at ExCel in April. (Be sure to visit MS&T at Stand G7.)