Defense IT

GAO: DARPA needs to put more of its ideas into the hands of users

The Pentagon’s lead research agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is pretty much synonymous with cutting edge ideas and innovative technologies. But while the agency that (under an earlier version of its name) created the Internet does an effective job of conceiving and developing disruptive technologies to support national security, it could do a better job of actually getting those technologies into the hands of military users, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

According to GAO’s report, DARPA’s process for transitioning new technologies to the field has been “limited,” and neither the research agency nor the Defense Department have clear policies in place for managing the transition.

”DARPA primarily focuses its time and resources on creating radically innovative technologies that support DOD’s warfighting mission and relegates technology transition to a secondary priority,” the report said.

While the agency has had successes in transitioning technologies to the field, inconsistencies in how it tracks transitions left GAO at a loss for how to reliably measure their ultimate success. GAO said DARPA had 150 successfully completed research projects between fiscal 2010 and 2014, but it was unable to keep tabs on all of them. Some technologies, while potentially viable, are shelved, sent to “the valley of death” because they may not be mature enough technologically for the acquisition community.

GAO did look at 10 projects from that period, however, and said it identified four factors that feed into a successful transition: 1) that there is a military or commercial demand for the technology, 2) that it’s in an area where DARPA has a sustained interest, 3) that researchers collaborate with transition partners, such as the services that would use the technology, and 4) that a program achieves clearly defines technical goals.

Not all of DARPA’s projects have immediate benefits, of course, but they could have an impact down the road. Its Robotics Challenge, for instance, ostensibly is about developing robots that can respond to disaster situations that are too dangerous for humans, but the agency has said its big focus is using the competition among government, industry and academic teams to advance the state of the art in robotics overall. So while the Army or National Guard might not get a disaster-response robot directly from the challenge, eventually any agency could benefit from the research.

But other of the agency’s projects do have the kind of direct demand GAO mentions. The RadioMap program, for example, addresses DOD’s stated goal of making more efficient use of the electromagnetic spectrum and DARPA, which is entering Phase 3 of the program, is working with the Marines Corps—a very likely real-world user—in testing the system. The agency is hoping RadioMap can go live in 2017.

In its report, GAO recommended that DARPA focus on those four factors that contribute to a successful transition,  increase  transition-focused training among program managers and others, and more widely share its technical data once projects are completed.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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