Revolutionary Arena in Space AI & Cyber Security

Revolutionary Arena in Space AI and Cyber Security

We live in a unique time in history from a technological perspective. The smallest of innovations are playing significant roles in the ecosystem. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is no longer a figment of our imagination. It is here, transforming our world in ways we can barely comprehend. It is an extraordinary journey. When you think aerospace, you think airplanes, but it’s actually more than that. Pakistan cannot sit and watch when other countries become dominant technological forces in the world. Pakistan has strategic adversaries who are rapidly surpassing it and have already surpassed the country in a lot of areas. But that was before the PAF NATIONAL AEROSPACE SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY Park (PAF NASTP) came in. At PAF NASTP, tech companies and academia, under the patronage of the Pakistan Air Force are building things that the government did not yet believe were possible.

Since its inception roughly a year ago, the Space Division, under PAF NASTP, had designed, developed and exported the Flyaway antenna that was already fitted on a spacecraft hovering several kilometres above earth for testing. “It is the first Made in Pakistan piece of equipment in space. The team in the Satellite Laboratory of the Space Division developed it in record time,” said Sqn Ldr Muhammad Atif, who is AD Spacecraft Development Division, PAF NASTP.

A part from military purposes, the Flyaway as well as the ManPak antennas, which the Space Division was further improving, also had commercial utilization – during natural disasters such as floods. “When all other networks of communication are affected and down, these portable antennas can be disassembled, packed, transported to any remote location and redeployed to transfer data uninterrupted and resume communications through satellite,” Sqn Ldr Muhammad Atif said, while highlighting its export potential, after testing it for commercial and military standards.

Pioneers in space technology for the PAF, the Space Division, was simultaneously working on various projects, in the three purposes built Sat Comm Development lab, Spacecraft Development lab and Global Navigation and Satellite (GNS) systems Lab.

“In the spacecraft development lab, we are in the final phases of designing and putting together 16 Communication Cubesat? Planned to be launched in January 2024. It is in collaboration with Istanbul Technical University. The launch will enhance PAF capabilities using indigenously acquired resources,” the official said, also pointing towards a model of a Mars rover, developed in collaboration with local universities under the research and development (R&D) initiative.

Similarly, at the GNS lab, as one team worked on meteorological equipment, the other ensured its good health and security.

It is not going to get slower from here on end. The potential of what this country can build was nothing short of massive. The PAF was in a wonderful business. To understand how Pakistan was fast becoming to be known as a startup nation, the Second to None team visited the state-of-the-art PAF NATIONAL AEROSPACE SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY Park (PAF NASTP), Nur Khan Air Force Base Chaklala and spoke to the officers in-charge.

“The first thing that worries our leaders is the survival of the country. That requires a military that is going to defend against states with much bigger armed forces and more resources. The only way to do that is with superior motivation and better technologies,” said CEO PAF NASTP Air Cdre Dr Liaqat Ullah Iqbal.

“What we have at PAF NASTP is an integrated facility where there is everything innovators require to go from napkin sketch to a fully developed hardware and software product that is going out the door and even overseas,” the official said.

Teamwork and creativity topped the mood when designing the giant PAF NASTP Alpha complex at the Nur Khan Air Force Base. It was a space designed to boost productivity and also workforce satisfaction. This could be seen with giant screens showing videos of the cosmos, a nod to one of the company’s newest assets, some oversized white boards plastered to walls full of creative ideas, offices arranged in work spaces of eight to ten and more for effective sharing and deliberating on concepts. One could see workstations decorated with models of rovers and satellite paraphernalia, and models of 5th generation fighter jets that helped in serious productivity. While the employees were there to work, the establishment did not want them to feel that way – with spaces to kick back and enjoy games of table tennis. Promoting and inspiring creativity paid off and that’s how many of the lab projects at PAF NASTP were dreamt.

Expanding on the PAF NASTP Mission, Dr Liaquat Ullah Iqbal elaborated that the concept of the project had been crystalized under the guidance of CAS PAF over the last four years. “The aim is to foster collaborative research, development and innovation in the fields of Aviation, Space, Cyber and Computing to ensure social, economic, technological and scientific benefits for Pakistan and our partners.”

Role of CAS PAF in project of strategic national importance – PAF NASTP

Visionary leadership of the Pakistan Air Force had traditionally delivered to the country far beyond the call of duty. Their numerous examples were topped by giants like Air Marshal Asghar Khan who resurrected Pakistan Air Force to become one of the finest in the world despite being resource strapped, smaller in size and shorter historical build up. Air Marshal Nur Khan took over the reins of PAF from his predecessor to take it to the next level of excellence and win the 1965 War against a far bigger adversary.

Following in the footsteps of two greats and other visionary predecessors who later followed, the current Air Chief, Marshal Zaheer Ahmed Baber Sidhu, NI(M) gave his overall vision upon assumption of the office of the Chief of the Air Staff Pakistan Air Force. Two distinct parts of the vision included modernization of the Pakistan Air Force to attain operational capability commensurate with regional buildup and growth of PAF’s organic research and development (R&D) capabilities in aerospace, cyber, IT and AI domains.

This write-up focuses on the second part of the vision.

In order to achieve growth of PAF’s organic R&D capabilities in aerospace, cyber, IT and AI domains, PAF NATIONAL AEROSPACE SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY Parks was conceived as a project of strategic national importance. Key milestones of the project were achieved in record time including but not limited to the formulation of comprehensive Concept Document of PAF NASTP comprising eight volumes.

It also included formulation of comprehensive Technology Development Roadmap 2022-2030, detailed procedure manuals for major domains, Admin, Security, Finance, Legal, Human Resource Management, Audits and M&E, formulation of PC-1s and approvals under Public Sector Development Program (PSDP) and lastly formulation and revisions of major national policies including National Aviation Policy, Science and Technology Policy, AI Policy, Cyber Security Policy and Cloud First Policy, to name a few.

Launch of PAF NASTP

Current PAF leadership directed a renewed approach upon assumption of the office to achieve the design level capability, critically required to become original equipment manufacturer (OEM) of major systems and technologies in the Aerospace and IT domains.

Formulation of comprehensive concept documents, detailed procedures, and comprehensive procedures and manuals formulations in all of the relevant domains had been undertaken. These were in line with the PAF NASTP Vision to make it one of the best Aerospace, Cyber IT, AI and Computing Clusters in the world and transform the national landscape with design, R&D and innovation centers for emerging and disruptive technologies.       

Development of PAF NASTP Techno Parks underwent an eight step process starting from approval of BoD to initiate new techno-park at a given location.

Rollout Plan

PAF NASTP planning and development had been undertaken with a number of considerations. The “PAF NASTP Rollout Plan December 2023” had also been finalized based on due considerations such as Regional Techno Parks in Rawalpindi, Karachi and Lahore, National Aerospace Cluster of Pakistan Kamra, University Level Techno Parks in all campuses of the Air University, and City Level Techno Parks in Kharian, Sargodha, Karachi.

The Special Technology Zone Authority (STZA) was established by the GoP by an act of Parliament in 2021. STZA was mandated to establish and facilitate establishment of Special Technology Zones (STZs) through Public Sector as well as Public Private Partnerships and as private ventures by local and foreign private investors.

Industrial collaborations with local and foreign partners, technical management of own divisions and commercialization of mature and marketable products / services was the real essence of PAF NASTP. Meanwhile, there were a number of private sector companies working in the aerospace, IT, AI, Cyber domain and contributing not only to the defense sector but had also gained international outreach. Taking a complete stock of all these companies was important to know the strengths and areas of excellence within the country.

Having firmly laid the foundation of PAF NASTP in terms of governance and management, concept and policy formulation, GoP approvals, major seed funding, inclusion in national development programs like PSDP, CAS PAF provided unmatchable support in design, development and operationalization of PAF NASTP at various levels in the country. As a result, the overall national structure of PAF NASTP had been crystallized at three levels, National level being the highest to be established as Aerospace Cluster of Pakistan (ACP) at Kamra, said CEO PAF NASTP, Air Cdre, Dr Liaqat Ullah Iqbal.

“The regional level was the second highest in the provincial capitals or major selected cities and thirdly, followed by University Techno Parks as well as Software Technology Parks in small cities/remote locations,” he explained.

According to the official, the essence of techno parks was to establish eco-systems of design, R&D and innovation through linkages among the constituent residents and partners, University Techno Parks as well as Software Technology Parks in small cities/remote locations. These would be interconnected through links under the guidance and oversight of local as well as regional leadership.

Similarly, all of the regional centers would be interconnected through linkages under the guidance and oversight by their respective management as well as the overall guidance and oversight by the national level aerospace cluster.

“PAF NASTP evolved from a project conceived originally to be established at Kamra only due to the large presence of national aerospace industry in the form of Pakistan Aeronautical Complex to national level enterprise. It targeted every nook and corner of the country in an extremely structured and systematic way. Given the growth and breadth of the original concept as well as physical manifestation, PAF NASTP can no longer be treated as a project. Instead, the management considers using the PAF NASTP programme to be a more accurate depiction of the status and evolved/refined concept of PAF NASTP,” Dr Liaqat Ullah Iqbal maintained.

Total of ten parks including National level Aerospace Cluster of Pakistan (ACP) at Kamra, three regional HQs at Rawalpindi, Karachi and Lahore and six city and university level techno parks had been planned at various AU campuses, Sargodha, Mianwali, Alam Abad, Kharian, Karachi and Nowshera.

Having carefully nurtured PAF NASTP through all of its phases of manifestation, CAS PAF decided to formally announce the coming of age for PAF NASTP on 20 October, 2022, during the inaugural address of Global Strategic Threat and Response (GSTAR) Conference organized by CASS. The ceremony was graced by the President of Pakistan Dr Arif Alvi with the following statement, “Ladies and Gentlemen, today for the first time I am publicly announcing formal inauguration of our flagship project PAF NATIONAL AEROSPACE SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY Park, commonly known as PAF NASTP. The project aims to establish an Aerospace Cluster and Aviation Design and Innovation Center (ADIC) at Kamra.”

According to retired Air Cdr Abdul Basit, who was looking after industrial collaboration for PAF NASTP, explained the purpose was developing alliances with industry especially for defence reasons. More than 75 companies related to AI, Aerospace, Information Technology and Cyber Security were housed in PAF NASTP Alpha, besides housing international companies from Turkey and China.

Already designing software for PAF, Abdul Basit gave the examples of solutions for computer-based training for its transport aircraft wings, which would have cost millions of dollars abroad. “PAF NASTP is partnering with Leos, an Electro Optics company making a feasible study to provide PAF with foreign object detection (FOD) tools on runways. Our Simulator Division has two confirmed orders from Iraq and Azerbaijan, to develop Super Mushak simulators,” Abdul Basit said, highlighting provision of services not just for PAF and sister organisations, but also for local and international markets.

Besides catering to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) that had expressed the need for a bird repellent system which was under development at PAF NASTP, Abdul Basit mentioned the Killer Drone drone project, which had utility for army and sister security agencies produced in collaboration with the private sector.

However, another major hallmark was the collaboration between PAF NASTP Pakistan and FlyOn Aero Italy.

It presented an exceptional opportunity for young Pakistanis to access world-class education, training, and certification, Abdul Basit said. “This collaboration ensures that students receive top-notch instruction, exposure to industry, best practices, and a globally recognized qualification that will open doors to a prosperous and fulfilling career in aviation. By choosing to enrol in the EASA certified B1/B2 program, young individuals in Pakistan can embark on a journey that not only shapes their personal and professional growth but also contributes to the advancement of the nation’s aviation sector. Graduates can earn upwards of $12, 000, anywhere in the world,” Abdul Basit said optimistically.

The program was European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) certified and globally recognized training program for individuals aspiring to build a career in aircraft maintenance engineering.

“This recognition offers young Pakistanis the opportunity to work not only in their home country but also in aviation hubs around the globe. It offers industry-relevant expertise, diverse career pathways EASA-certified graduates can pursue various career paths, including roles as aircraft maintenance engineers, technical supervisors, quality control inspectors, and even managerial positions within the aviation sector. It also promises job stability, gateway to aviation innovation and contribution to national growth,” Abdul Basit elaborated.

The Aircraft Division ALPHA 7, had been completely remodeled for Turkish company Baykar, to suit requirements such as production, assembly and testing. Staffs were under training in Turkey, which would be ready by the time Baykar came in.

“Baykar comes in with roughly 40 people and would increase strength to 100 in a year depending on how the company grows. PAF is training 100 staff members and also intends to increase strength to 2, 000. Labs for producing equipment and putting them together in the assembly line, space for functional tests, everything will be ready by August,” said Programme Director Unmanned Systems Air Cmdr Imran Anwar.

PAF NASTP Alpha was good for a visit as an insight into what the future may hold. At PAF NASTP, things moved really quickly. There were ideas one day and then a prototype of it a few days later. Like every other company, developers had sketches, ideas and all the innovations they wanted to work on. The difference at PAF NASTP was that they did not have to take those sketches to the government and ask them to help them. “If they believe it’s the right thing that is needed by the industry they will make it happen, regardless of whether people believe it is possible or not, “ said REHMAN, who is Project Director Technology Founding CTO PAF NASTP and has led the programme from the beginning. 

The official said that PAF organic R&D had matured over the last 40 years, to a level where practical systems were working on fighter aircrafts and radars in the infield. It made sense to elevate to the next stage.

“We have developed incredible linkages with ministries, such as the Planning Commission, Defence, National Food Security, and Information Technology to mention some. MoUs with academic institutions have been signed. Biggest initiative was bringing on board private firms. He gave the example of the Rs2 billion project, “Green AI’’, a consortium of three organisations, PAF NASTP, Arid Agriculture University, and Pakistan Council for Science and Industrial Research (PCSIR), which would be developing biofertilizers, soil microbes, and nano fertilisers etc. Arid University was bringing in domain knowledge of agriculture, and managing smart farms, monitored by drones, the official explained.

“With populations booming and climate change threatening crops, we need solutions. Enter AI. Its algorithms can analyse crop data and automate irrigation and even predict yields, bringing us closer to solving growing demands of food,” said Air Cdr Rehman.

Planners maintained that PAF NASTP had the potential to make incredible differences in the world. It was important to make sure that decision makers had information at their fingertips. “It’s going to be monumental, what we’re able to do and the impact we have on the world,” Rehman said.

In the last one year there has been tremendous evolution in cyber security and AI. Systems were fully safe and covered from every angle. PAF NASTP was ready to conduct a need based companies maturity survey to identify system vulnerabilities for financial institutions such as banks and government departments that handled sensitive data, providing solutions to protect from cyber-attacks.

At PAF NASTP, technology brought about a world that only seemed possible in science fiction films. The gears of this future were already turning and they were powered by artificial intelligence inventions that were fascinating and poised to change the world as we knew it.

There were a number of private sector companies working in the aerospace, IT, AI, Cyber domain and contributing not only to the defence sector but had also gained international outreach. Taking a complete stock of all these companies was important to know the strengths and areas of excellence within the country. Data was collected by ITC Department from across the country by engaging different national forums like PAF NASTP tenants, different chambers of commerce and industry, Defense Export Promotion Organization (DEPO), DGMP, DGDP, MoIT, PSEB, PITB etc. As a result, more than 550 companies were identified, working in different domains of defence, aerospace, IT and tech industry.

Therefore, the overall management structure had been envisaged to be directly reporting to the Chief of the Air Staff Pakistan Air Force to continually and regularly receive guidance and direction to manage complexity and diversity of PAF NASTP.

“As we reach for the stars, AI is our compass helping us strengthen communications, deal with food insecurity and building defence products with the best people from the technology industry, working on defence problems in the right way to bring change very quickly and make impacts at low costs now instead of ten years later and get left behind,” said Air Cdr Rehan.