TechUK Webinar: Exploring the Future of Synthetic Environments in Defence


How are synthetic environments transforming defence? Watch this exclusive techUK webinar on-demand and hear from General Sir Richard Barrons, Air Vice Marshal Bruce Hedley and Mimi Keshani about the revolutionary impact of immersive technologies, from AI integration to military IoT.

6 min read

“The winners are not those who move cautiously but those who transform at scale and pace to retain an operational edge,” General Sir Richard Barrons stated as he opened the discussion at the recent techUK webinar hosted by Hadean, “Are Synthetic Environments and Immersive Technologies the New Operating Environment?”. The panel was chaired by Rory Daniels, Chair and Programme Manager for Emerging Technologies at techUK, and featured General Sir Richard Barrons, Air Vice Marshal (Ret’d) Bruce Hedley and Hadean’s Co-Founder and COO, Mimi Keshani.

In a wide-ranging and dynamic discussion, the group explored the transformative potential of synthetic environments, which Sir Richard likened to the revolutionary impact of the battleship, telegraph, and aeroplane. He stressed the need for the military to think like insurgents, advocating for rapid and large-scale transformation to maintain operational edge through the dominance of data and creation of a military IoT. As a General Election now looms over military and government decision-making, announced coincidentally just after the webinar to take place on July 4th, political re-evaluation could serve as a catalyst for the defence sector to embrace necessary reforms, promoting a culture of adaptability and collaboration with industry partners.

Interoperability and Security by Design

A key theme echoed by the group was the need for synthetic environments to be interoperable and secure by design. Bruce emphasised the complexity of integrating information across allies and governments, highlighting the challenge of benefiting individuals in multi-domain integration. “Trying to integrate across allies and governments where everyone has access to information they need is a big problem,” he noted. Sir Richard called for moving beyond legacy systems, warning that failure to do so would leave the military overmatched by major powers. Mimi stressed the importance of technology transfer to ensure a common operating picture, addressing the cognitive challenge of making sense of vast data and tailoring information to mission-specific needs.

Continuing on the focus of ‘security by design’, Sir Richard emphasised the necessity of secure data processes and distribution to prevent catastrophic breaches. “It’s clear if we go down this road [multinational SSEs] then the user will demand that you know your data is good and assured,” he said. Mimi pointed out the value of smaller, modular approaches in building towards a seamless synthetic environment. Bruce added that a modular approach allows for creative data management, ensuring efficient data use at points of need: “The modular approach allows you to push more or less depending on what you need to get through.” 

Cultural Change in Defence

The panel stressed the cultural shift required in defence to effectively integrate synthetic environments and immersive technologies. Sir Richard highlighted the traditional hierarchical culture of the armed forces, which often resists change. He called for a response that embraces the technological output without a defensive reaction, fostering a collaborative environment where military personnel work alongside industry talent. “We need to cause a response that understands the output of this technology,” he asserted. Mimi noted the disconnect between those who understand the problems and those who develop software solutions, advocating for pathfinder contracts that enable innovation through iterative testing and development.

Concerns were also raised about making the UK defence sector more appealing to non-traditional suppliers. Sir Richard emphasised the importance of framing defence investment as an act of self-preservation and ambition, involving the private sector and civil society. “The key to surviving into the future is to recognise that defence and national security is a fusion of what the regular armed forces can do and the help they need with technology,” he stated. Mimi highlighted the dual-use nature of SMEs like Hadean, which balance business growth with coping mechanisms for delays. Bruce suggested creating a trust-based environment where defence sets challenges and funds solutions, reducing risk through collaborative industrial strategies.

These are themes we anticipate playing out in the political discourse ahead of the upcoming General Election as defence culture and capabilities are elevated to the top of the agenda. Such political momentum can help secure the necessary funding and policy support for these transformative initiatives, presenting a unique opportunity to drive forward the integration of synthetic environments and immersive technologies, ensuring that the armed forces can adapt to modern challenges swiftly and effectively.

Exploiting AI for Synthetic Environments

Artificial intelligence (AI) was recognised as a pivotal tool for enhancing synthetic environments. Sir Richard explained that AI enables the integration and analysis of vast data, allowing creative analysts to generate insights and run scenario simulations. “AI allows you to amass, integrate, and analyse more data,” he noted. He also emphasised the potential of large language models (LLMs) to facilitate seamless communication, especially with non-native English speakers, significantly enhancing operational coordination.

Mimi highlighted AI’s ability to provide real-time analysis and operational assistance, moving beyond traditional 2D interfaces to immersive spatial computing technologies. “The ability to analyse and provide reviews in real time is a big advantage in an operational context,” she explained. This shift would create accurate virtual representations of the physical world, solving complex problems more effectively. Bruce stressed the need for a thorough understanding of AI to harness its potential while ensuring human oversight to mitigate risks associated with AI-driven decisions.

Optimism for the Future

The panel concluded with their outlook on the future of these technologies. Sir Richard expressed pessimism about the UK’s scale, pace, and competitive advantage but remained optimistic about technological development. Bruce was sceptical about the defence sector’s comfort with engaging new technologies, wishing for earlier adoption to reduce future risks. “I wish we took more of a leap early that would derisk the future,” he remarked. In contrast, Mimi was optimistic, emphasising the critical necessity of adopting these technologies to secure future advantages. “I am optimistic because given the consequences of not adopting this technology, it’s up to us,” she concluded.

In the context of the looming general election, a heightened focus on the issues discussed by the panel could act as a catalyst, accelerating the technological and cultural improvements discussed by the panellists. Ensuring that innovative projects are insulated from political fluctuations will be crucial in maintaining the momentum of technological advancements.

If you missed the live webinar, visit our landing page to watch the discussion on-demand here.