DIUX continues outreach into drone and satellite projects
- By Michael Hoffman
- Jul 17, 2017
The Pentagon’s new innovation cell announced Wednesday it has spent $71 million on startups and established commercial technology companies in emerging fields such as cybersecurity, robotics and drone detection.
Military leaders stood up the cell, called the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUX) two years ago establishing offices in technology hubs like Silicon Valley, Boston and Austin. The goal has been to get companies in these emerging tech fields to re-engage with the military.
Since the Cold War, companies have moved away from the government for research and development efforts. Instead, corporations like Apple, Google and Microsoft have taken the lead in funding breakthrough research that has led to the most significant technology advancements in recent years.
Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter recognized the growing disparity and made it a top priority to reverse the trend. Many wondered whether these defense innovation efforts would continue under the Trump Administration. Thus far, Defense Secretary James Mattis and his team has supported DIUX and other innovation initiatives like the Defense Digital Service.
One of the most common complaints from commercial technology companies when contracting with the military is speed. The DoD’s acquisition process is too slow, especially when there are often equivalent opportunities to sell the same product in the private sector.
In response to this feedback, Pentagon leaders have armed the unit with a nimble acquisition tool called the Commercial Solutions Opening program that seeks to get companies funded in months. The name of the program is pretty mundane but it’s a revolutionary acquisition tool that can get companies funded in weeks.
Raj Shah, DIUX’s managing partner, said speed is a motivating factor for his young unit. As he explained at the Defense Innovation Board public meeting on July 12, DIUX measures its “pace in weeks and months not years.”
Acquisition officials working with DIUX streamlined the acquisition process right from the first step. Rather than filling out a substantial proposal, companies simply fill out a short solution paper. If DIUX leaders like it, company leaders will be invited to do a presentation.
“DIUX can then negotiate and execute fast, flexible, and collaborative awards with the goal to issue funding within 60 days of a first meeting with the company,” said Carter when he first announced the program.
DIUX has since gotten 37 companies under contract in the program’s first 14 months. Shah made sure to point out too that these are not just research and development contracts. Twenty percent of the first 37 contracts have since moved to production and gotten technology into service members’ hands.
The companies who have received contracts are mostly from California, but there are also others from other parts of the country and even some companies based outside the U.S. DIUX officials have uncovered a wide range of artificial intelligence, satellite, drone, software and robotics companies.
DIUX accepts solutions papers from any technology company, but it also sends out solicitations or requests for specific technologies. Currently, DIUX is looking for companies who provide predictive maintenance software and “Mobile Endpoint Security Solutions.”
Since posting the first solicitation in 2016, a few trends have appeared. Drones are top of mind for agencies working with DIUX. Not just building new ones, but building systems that find them.
In March, DIUX submitted a request for a “Multi Drone Defeat System” and a “Kinetic Drone Defense” system. A month earlier, DIUX also issued a request for a “Passive, Optical Counter-UAS Detection System” and a “Acoustic Counter-UAS System.”
Drone detection companies, SkySafe and Sensofusion, both received contracts in April 2017 since those solicitations were issued.
Sensofusion builds the AIRFENCE, which “can automatically detect, locate, track, and take over Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) controls, as well as locate a UAS operator with pinpoint accuracy in real-time.” The Skysafe system can “system can take control of a rogue drone over the air and safely land it,” according to DIUX’s website.
It’s not just about drones though. DIUX has also put satellite companies like Orbital Insight and Capella Space under contract. Both companies operate micro-satellites that provide near real-time imagery to military units.
The innovation cell has also worked with Halo Nueroscience, which built a headset “that stimulates the part of your brain responsible for muscle movement.” Special Forces soldiers have started wearing the headsets during training to improve performance.
Shah said the DIUX team will continue to search for companies like Halo and Orbital Insight and get them working with the military to maintain America’s edge on the battlefield.