Investing in innovation


Aerospace and defense companies are investing in research centers to explore and exploit new technologies, but also look to start ups and entrepreneurs for future technology.

If innovation is the driving force of the defense industry, then research and development is the fuel. But new ideas do not come cheap. According to Statista, in 2022 the leading five aerospace and defense investors alone spent just under US$11 billion on research and development.

This substantial sum is seeing defense industry primes transition from investment in traditional disciplines such as mechanical and electrical to include digital ones such as software and cybersecurity. Adaptation, rather than invention, has become key, as existing civilian technologies including AI, augmented and virtual reality, the internet of things and additive manufacturing are explored for their potential application in the defense domain.

Of the top five investors last year, Boeing led with a spend of US$3.7 billion. Much of the cutting-edge work emanates from Phantom Works, Boeing Defense, Space & Security’s advanced research, development and prototyping division, which invests in the development of leading-edge, disruptive products and capabilities across the defense industry. Research areas include: new missile design and development, modeling and simulation capabilities utilizing Boeing’s Virtual Warfare Centers, digital engineering, open system architectures, artificial intelligence, autonomy, collaborative technologies, hypersonics, directed energy, network solutions, advanced sensing, command, control and communications capabilities and the high ground of space-based defense and security.

Phantom Works will manage the company’s recently announced strategic collaboration with Shield AI in the areas of autonomous capabilities and artificial intelligence on current and future defense programs.

“Boeing continues to leverage talent from across the enterprise to make great strides in autonomous capabilities and programs in recent years,” said Steve Nordlund, vice president and general manager for Boeing’s Air Dominance organization.

Second in the R&D investment scale with US$2.4 billion was BAE Systems, who recently launched FalconWorks, a new R&D division within its Air Sector. Serving as a centre for advanced and agile research and development designed to deliver a range of cutting-edge combat air capabilities, FalconWorks will focus on generating ideas, innovation and collaboration, working with new and existing partners, academia, research organisations, SMEs and national governments to deliver rapid concepting of new products and services needed by air force customers to maintain their edge.

Dave Holmes, Managing Director of FalconWorks at BAE Systems: “The creation of FalconWorks is a reflection of the changing environment and our goal to ensure innovative technology development is at the core of everything we do. This new division builds on our established expertise in world-leading combat air programmes such as Typhoon, F-35 and Tempest to unlock opportunities to expand our portfolio and deliver the breakthrough technologies which keep our customers ahead.”

Looking further afield

New technology and innovation may not always come from within defense prime labs, and industry leaders are also looking further afield for talent and potential partnerships. The World Defense Show’s Future of Defense Hub is one of their targets, as a platform that brings together major investors and developers with those developing the technology that will shape the future of the industry. According to WDS, it offers a dedicated platform for breakthroughs in defense technology, where innovators, inventors, and entrepreneurs can showcase their transformative concepts and technologies to the global defense industry.

Andrew Pearcey Chief Executive Officer, World Defense Show, said: “The Hub will run across all the days of the show, and will feature universities, R&D centres, innovators and start-ups displaying the next stages in the evolution of defense technology. This is where the visiting primes and government entities can meet tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and explore start-up companies that are pushing the boundaries of defense technology.”

The Innovation Theatre within the Hub also serves the R&D agenda, as Pearcey explained: “As well as debates on how the future of defense is likely to be shaped by several key trends, including advancements in technology, evolving security threats, and the impact on innovative startups, the theatre will host a series of funding pitching sessions, and the investee and investor program, providing the opportunity for companies to converse and connect with inventors. This is the place for international investors to seek out the next step in defense innovation.”

World Defense Show takes place 4-8 February in Riyadh. See for information on show features and visitor registration.