The return to London’s ExCel Centre and lifting of Covid restrictions helped resurrect the long-delayed 31st iteration of IT2EC. MS&T’s Andy Fawkes and Dim Jones took in the conference and exhibition and came away with a range of reactions.
Opinion varied among exhibitors as to the overall value of the 2022 International Training Technology Exhibition and Conference, but it was almost universally positive, and the show floor had a good ‘buzz’ to it.
The last three (then ITEC) events – in Rotterdam, Stuttgart and Stockholm – were characterised by a gradual decline in the size of the show and its attendance. This event appeared to arrest that trend, with 30+ nations represented, total visitor numbers of 1,818, and military and VIP attendees 476, an increase of 4.5% and 12% respectively over the previous 2019 event in Stockholm – and that had the co-location of two other shows (EW Europe and Underwater Defence Technology) to boost numbers.
Many of the foreign delegates were in uniform, and the show was well supported by the UK military (and civil servants), although restrictions on the wearing of uniform for travel meant that this was less apparent than might have been the case.
There were more than 70 booths on the exhibition floor and 100+ exhibiting organisations, comprising industry, trade associations, the media and NATO. There was only one ‘national pavilion’, that of Australia, embracing no less than 8 companies and no doubt celebrating their newfound ability to escape their homeland and participate.
When we first saw the floor plan back in November during I/ITSEC, it looked a bit threadbare, with travel restrictions only slowly being lifted and companies understandably hedging their bets and delaying committing. On the eve of the show, the plan still looked quite underpopulated; happily, this did not translate to the exhibition floor on the day, which was well laid out and comfortable to navigate, and included a meeting-place area where visitors could sit down and talk or just take the weight off their feet – a far cry from I/ITSEC, attempting to balance a laptop on the corner of someone’s booth or the top of a waste-bin while trying to avoid being ‘totalled’ by passing traffic.
In addition to the booths, there was also a tech demonstration area and a ‘DisTec’ presentation theatre, along the lines of I/ITSEC’s ‘Innovation Showcase’.
This year’s event was characterised by a step-change in the nature of the show floor. Many of the larger companies were absent including, surprisingly, some of the main S&T players in Europe. This allowed some of the smaller companies to occupy larger booths, and also catered for the encouraging number of small-medium enterprises.
Gone were the plethora of domes, visual displays and high-end synthetic training devices, to be replaced by headsets, flat screens and low-cost devices. The only dome in town was Cobra Simulation’s excellent 180 Venom, and that occupied a 3-metre square booth with some room to spare. The proliferation of VR headsets was reflected in an almost total absence of projectors, and the companies who manufacture them. Mercifully, the headsets and their wearers were generally confined to the booths, and the aisles were free of wandering zombies.
There were haptics, ‘smart wearables’ and eye- and motion-tracking, plus companies specialising in the collection and analysis of data. There were also some small-arms simulators, but they were not accompanied by the deafening sound effects which characterised previous shows.
We did not notice any major technology shifts, but there were more exhibitors showing off their XR technology and services.
Although the show was almost exclusively defence, there was one medical simulation exhibitor, XR-based demos by Adaptive Virtual Reality Training (AVRT) for law enforcement and by Leicestershire Fire & Rescue Service.
An additional trend was the larger companies hosting smaller ones on their stands, showing that they are embracing innovation.
Complementing the pursuit of new technology, some of the larger companies are looking to broaden the scope of their activities as training providers. Elbit reported that only 20% of their business is now in Israel, and that they operate in 20 countries with a workforce of 20,000. In the UK, they provide flying training with Affinity, Joint Fires, FAC Training, Combined Arms Virtual Simulation, and Watchkeeper support for the Army, EW training for the RN, future work with Dreadnought submarines and Project Selborne, and have just taken over operation of the Maritime Composite Training System (MCTS).
BAE Systems are also hoping to expand their training services in UK, mirroring what they already do in countries such as Saudi Arabia. Their recent merger with Bohemia looks to be a mutually comfortable match, with the latter showcasing VBS4 and their Mantle ETM terrain-generation software, and BAE Systems themselves collaborating with Hadean to harness supercomputing technology for training, and with Pipistrel to develop defence solutions including electric training aircraft.
Meanwhile, security is an ongoing challenge in blending 4th- and 5th-Gen aircraft training, and Nova Systems is investigating the potential for emulation of 5th-Gen systems as a workaround solution.
Lastly, despite the environmental constraints, there must still be a place for live training, exemplified by two Swedish companies – Saab, with their established live instrumented land force training, and Air Target providing acoustical gunnery scoring for air-to-air, air-to-ground and surface-to-air applications.
The conference was conducted in the customary one large and two small inflatable igloos adjacent to the exhibition floor, which worked well with excellent acoustics. The conference over-arching theme was ‘Navigating Rapidly Evolving Technologies for Training and Education’, supported by three concurrent pillars: Technologies and Architectures, Human Factors and Performance, and Emerging Solutions.
Plenary Session introductions were by the Senior Defence Advisor, Clarion Defence & Security, Air Vice-Marshal (Ret’d) Gary Waterfall, and the longest-serving Conference Chairman in ITEC history (having first attempted this in 2020), Rusmat Ahmed, SVP Sales EMEA for Bohemia Interactive Solutions.
The keynote speakers were almost exclusively military rather than industry; the quality of presentations was extremely high, and the subsequent discussions topical and interesting, although the line-up lacked a bit of balance, due to the absence of senior land forces speakers (this through no fault of the organisers but rather a reflection of other priorities at the moment).
One thing which stood out, having been on the periphery of the military S&T world for the past few years, is the development of an M&S ‘dialect’, replete with buzzwords and acronyms, which is clearly intelligible to the main protagonists, but not necessarily to the entire audience.
IT2EC is billed as a forum in which government can tell industry what it needs, and industry showcase what it has got. One message from a keynote speaker was that, while the military are very happy to collaborate with vendors to develop software packages which support defence programmes, this does not stretch to ownership or control of the associated operating systems.
Another was that the military don’t necessarily have to have the ‘wizziest’ tech, but they do have to use what they have in the most effective way.
Welcome news from the Royal Navy that the maritime element of the Defence Operational Training Capability (DOTC) has at last been funded – and timely, since Commander Fleet Operational Sea Training acknowledged the RN “can no longer achieve training to the required level of complexity and threat representation”. Although the DOTC(M) programme is some way behind its Air and Land counterparts, it will benefit from common architecture and lessons learned.
The presentations in the supporting conference programme were informative and interesting, perhaps helped by IT2EC steering talks away from ‘sales pitches’ by the requirement to submit supporting papers.
Live/Synthetic Balance (LSB)
This is currently a hot topic, the shift towards synthetic training being driven by a mix of cost, security, training effectiveness and, not least, ecological considerations. As AVM Waterfall observed, it is no longer morally responsible to be adversely affecting the environment when better alternatives exist.
The UK Chief of Air Staff’s ASTRA programme seeks to achieve an LSB for the RAF of 10%/90% by 2040, and the RN and Army are also looking for significant reductions in their carbon footprint. However, these aspirations give rise to some, if not unintended at least problematic, consequences. In the case of air forces, the issues are how to maximise training effectiveness in the 10% of live flying, and whether this is sufficient to address those physiological and mental aspects of operations which cannot satisfactorily be replicated in synthetic training.
Equally importantly, what happens when the 10% of live flying is suddenly required to increase to 150% because of an unforeseen operational commitment. The situation in Ukraine may have served to realign the attitudes of government to defence; however, anyone who seriously believes that peacetime manpower and support will, in the longer term, reflect the need to be able to react to such a contingency should have been around in the early 1990s when ‘Options For Change’ (the UK’s ‘peace dividend’, following the ending of the Cold War) was being implemented as many of the forces affected were actively engaged in combat in Gulf War One.
It seems – and, indeed, is – a long time since the 30th ITEC, held in Stockholm in May of 2019. Since then, events have been scheduled in London, Seville and Rotterdam, all of which, for Covid-related and other reasons, were cancelled. IT2EC, unlike some other shows, did not run a virtual event during the pandemic; it was, therefore, a pleasure to return to the live environment at the ExCel, historically one of its most popular venues.
Registration for the exhibition and conference was all online with verification on arrival, and seemed to run smoothly. The ExCel was not particularly busy with other events, and the facilities were to the usual high standard and uncrowded.
Security in the building and on the show floor was visible but unobtrusive; perhaps as a reflection of the current situation in Ukraine and the more positive attitude towards defence, there were no anti-military demonstrations or other adverse occurrences.
A welcome – if long overdue – enhancement was the provision of free WiFi venue-wide.
From the organiser’s perspective, Gary Waterfall observed, “This is the first IT2EC I’ve been to, and I have really enjoyed it; it’s busier than I thought it would be, and it’s really all about industry collaboration. The quality of discussion has been outstanding”.
Conference Chair Rusmat Ahmed reflected: “When the IT²EC Committee thought about Digital Twins as the theme for the Covid-postponed 2020 conference, we thought we were being a little brave introducing this civilian market concept to the military domain. I think we got this 100% right as a theme, showing just how well IT²EC acts a key forum for technology awareness. Senior military leaders were talking about Digital Twins as comfortably as they could have talked about that morning's breakfast cereal. I'm sure next year's theme will be just as topical. (No, I can't divulge it at this stage!)”.
He added, “Something that I've never experienced before happened to myself and two fellow IT²EC Committee members immediately after the show closed. Two young soldiers approached us and thanked us for the conference and the show. They went out of their way to praise the quality of the conference presentations and panels, and appreciated how the intimate theatres and relaxed style of facilitation allowed them to ask their burning questions. And the style of the show allowed them to have the face-to-face discussions with experts that are hardly available at other shows they attend. That's something special about IT²EC.”
The future IT2EC format envisages annual events alternating between the ExCel and a continental European venue. IT2EC 2023 is already scheduled for 24-26 April in Rotterdam, followed by a return to London in 2024.
Meanwhile, Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI), another Clarion event which – as the name suggests – majors on hardware, but with an increasing training content, takes place biennially, but always at the ExCel, and will next be held in the autumn of 2023. London having historically been the most popular ITEC venue, a status which will only be enhanced by the imminent opening of the new Crossrail train service, and this year benefitting also from the ‘Covid bounce-back’ factor, Rotterdam will be something of a litmus test of IT2EC’s long-term viability.
It is also to be hoped that some of the major European companies who did not exhibit this year will be tempted to return to the fold. Many of them will have sent delegates to London and, if their experiences coincide with the impressions with which we left the ExCel, it is to be hoped that The Ahoy will continue the IT2EC renaissance; see you there next April.