NATO Set to Adopt British MOD Standard for Counter-Drone Technology

The U.K.’s SAPIENT protocol emphasizes plug-and-play sensors and autonomous decision-making—it could change the battlefield calculus in Ukraine.

NATO C-UAS drones

A demonstrator drone is ensnared with a net during a demonstration for NATO’s 2023 C-UAS Technical Interoperability Exercise. [Courtesy: NATO]

NATO wants to open new lines of communication—but not between its member nations.

Rather, the organization is exploring a new way for counter-uncrewed aircraft systems (C-UAS) to talk to each other. Open-source intelligence company Janes reported NATO will adopt the U.K. Ministry of Defense’s (MOD) Sensing for Asset Protection with Integrated Electronic Networked Technology protocol, or SAPIENT, as a “C-UAS standard.”

Essentially, SAPIENT will lay out new guidelines for manufacturers of C-UAS sensors and other technology. The framework emphasizes plug-and-play components, artificial intelligence-based decision making, and a lower burden to acquisition and integration.

In 2024, NATO will begin a yearlong ratification process to adopt SAPIENT as a Standardization Agreement, Cristian Coman, chief scientist for the Joint Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) division of NATO’s Communications and Information (NCI) Agency, told Janes. It will require the approval of 14 member countries.

Prior to the announcement, the NCI Agency organized a 10-day series of C-UAS exercises in Vredepeel, Netherlands, for NATO’s C-UAS Technical Interoperability Exercise (TIE23), hosted by the organization’s C-UAS Joint Nucleus within the Dutch Ministry of Defense. 

The demonstrations ran from September 12 to 22 and looked at how SAPIENT interacted with some 70 C-UAS systems—including newfangled concepts such as jet-powered drones and net-tossing UAS.

What Is SAPIENT?

Written and sponsored by the U.K. Defense Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) and funded by the MOD, SAPIENT was designed as an open architecture that can integrate autonomous sensor information into a single picture. The MOD adopted it as the country’s C-UAS standard in 2019.

“In the SAPIENT system, the individual sensors are advanced, using [AI] to make detections and classifications locally, sending only the information, not the raw data, to the command and control [C2] system,” a summary on the U.K. government’s official website reads.

“They also make operating decisions autonomously, such as which direction to look or whether to zoom in, in order to fulfill higher-level objectives,” it continues. “These higher-level objectives are managed by a decision-making module which controls the overall system and makes some of the decisions normally made by the operators. This reduces the operator’s need to constantly monitor the output of the sensors.”

More specifically, SAPIENT calls for AI algorithms that reside both in the decision-making modules and the onboard sensors themselves. It encourages an architecture in which different sensors use a shared interface to talk to each other, which could reduce integration time and create a competitive market for suppliers.

The system also enables “multisensor fusion,” meaning several different nodes jointly handle tasks such as correlation, association, tracking, and decision-making. In addition to lowering the cognitive burden on operators, it’s expected to reduce the bandwidth requirements for network traffic and the cost of acquiring new tech.

The key export of the program so far has been the interface control document (ICD) standards that tell suppliers how to develop compliant components. But researchers have also developed variants of SAPIENT technologies to demonstrate the concept and weigh its benefits for users.

Most recently, SAPIENT was published by the British Standards Institute as BSI Flex 335, which provides U.K. manufacturers with the first iteration of requirements for producing interfaces between sensor edge, effector, and fusion nodes. BSI Flex, which develops guidelines for markets with rapidly evolving needs, accelerated the standard’s development.

BSI Flex 335 makes a few changes to the most recent version of the ICD, most notably a 60 percent reduction in the communications bandwidth needed to run SAPIENT. The living document is expected to be updated later this year.

SAPIENT was initially evaluated as the interoperability standard for NATO C-UAS systems at TIE21, where it made more than 70 connections between C-UAS sensor systems and C2 modules. The organization revisited it during TIE22, where it connected another 31 autonomous sensor nodes from a who’s who of vendors to 13 decision-making nodes.

The program’s standards, decision-making nodes, and sensors were also deployed in the Contested Urban Environment 2021 (CUE2021) exercise, a multinational experiment that tested it with over 60 technologies. AI technology in the decision-making nodes managed the sensors and provided the multisensor fusion the U.K. MOD covets.

In the future, the ministry will look to stack multiple SAPIENT systems in a hierarchy, which could improve scalability and open more real-life scenarios for deployment. The Dstl has also tasked a cross-industry working group—the SAPIENT Interface Management Panel, or SIMP—with creating a “configuration control framework” around the interface and its tools. The panel is open to all and operates on a nonfunded, voluntary basis.

The Implications of SAPIENT

Mario Behn, principal scientist of the NCI Agency’s Joint ISR, told Janes the purpose of the TIE23 trial was to enhance the interoperability of C-UAS technology through SAPIENT. The exercises involved more than 300 participants from 15 NATO-allied and three partner nations, the European Union, and 57 private sector companies. But could these systems one day show up in Ukraine?

Military, scientific, and industry specialists live-tested around 70 systems and technologies—including sensors, effectors, and jammers—designed to detect, identify, and neutralize enemy UAS. Among them were a “fishing net” interceptor drone from Germany’s Argus Interception, which tosses a small net over the enemy’s aircraft, and a jet-powered drone from DDTS (another German firm) that can fly up to 310 mph to intercept fast-moving UAS.

Britain’s MOD believes the ability for different C-UAS to talk to each other through SAPIENT could one day lead to technology that can take control of enemy drones like a parasite, guiding them to a new target or location.

Representatives from several private companies at TIE23 referenced how these systems could combat low-cost, self-detonating Iranian Shahed drones, which are being deployed in droves by Russia in its war on Ukraine. In theory, SAPIENT could allow Ukrainian forces to fire Shahed drones back at its aggressor.

No Ukrainian officials were present for the exercises. But Claudio Palestini, a NATO science officer, said the organization is having “ongoing discussions” with the country about C-UAS issues. Major General Hans Folmer, a senior NATO officer in the NCI Agency, added SAPIENT will bring “big benefits” to alliance members.

Ukraine is not a NATO member—at least, not yet. At present, it’s a partner country, meaning it works closely with the organization but is not a part of it. However, NATO leaders in July agreed to “expedite” its membership. 

There is no hard date for Ukraine to join NATO. If it does, the adoption of SAPIENT could change the calculus of the war in its favor. That will all depend, though, on current members’ acceptance of the proposed framework.

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Jack is a staff writer covering advanced air mobility, including everything from drones to unmanned aircraft systems to space travel—and a whole lot more. He spent close to two years reporting on drone delivery for FreightWaves, covering the biggest news and developments in the space and connecting with industry executives and experts. Jack is also a basketball aficionado, a frequent traveler and a lover of all things logistics.

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