Pentagon’s New Tech Innovation Unit Could Speed Up Traditional Acquisition Process

BOSTON – There is an expectation that out of its new fast-track technology outreach offices will come lessons that will help defense acquisition as a whole deal more quickly and cooperatively with industry.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter this week cut the ribbon on a second Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental (DIUx) in Boston, designed to tap regional market for tech innovations that have practical military application.

“Obviously, this is focused on new technology which by its nature, the cutting-edge has to be adopted quickly,” Carter said. “Is it relevant to the larger issue of defense acquisition? It is in two respects. The speed and agility and responsiveness that DIUx represents within its own area of technology, I hope also will be adopted elsewhere. We need that.”

Defense Secretary Ash Carter answers a question during a news conference at the new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUx, office in Boston, July 26, 2016. DoD photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley

Defense Secretary Ash Carter answers a question during a news conference at the new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUx, office in Boston, July 26, 2016. DoD photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley

The unit tosses out problems and weighs responses from the private sector on an abbreviated timeline that can result in contracts within 60 days of first contact and as soon as 30 days from receiving a promising proposal, Carter said.

Through a mechanism called the Commercial Solution Opening, DIUx uses congressionally approved cash to fund prototyping efforts for technologies that could tackle military problems.

DIUx is procuring small hand-held drones designed to fly indoors, operate autonomously and map areas without the need for GPS signal so it can explore caves and other tight-quarters environments where enemies can hide and operate.

To increase maritime awareness at reduced cost and risk to personnel and ships, DIUx is procuring wind-powered drones that can operate on the ocean’s surface for months at a time and provide operationally and scientifically important data from areas that manned ships can’t reach.

Investments in machine-learning technology that can sift through millions of social media posts for specific images, aggregate those posts and provide commanders with rapid awareness of extremist activity on the internet, could help the military stifle terrorist online recruiting and propaganda efforts.

Unlike vehicle manufacturers or other more traditional contractors that either rely on or regularly dabble in military contracts, the Defense Department does not have an established relationship with the tech industry. Carter sought to change that when he established the first DIUx in Silicon Valley, Calif., a year ago.

“The technology community isn’t used to working with us,” he said. “We were not on their radar screens. That wasn’t the case 50 years ago and now it is…We’re not always the easiest customer to work with.”

In the intervening months, the unit has launched at least 15 separate projects with the first contract awarded just 31 days after its doors opened. Contract for additional projects are expected in the coming weeks, for technologies ranging from secure network mapping to autonomous seafaring drones.

For the past 15 years of war, the Pentagon has fielded gear through “a system that was used to buying things on a Cold War timetable of years and years,” Carter said. “We need to buy things on a timescale of months in order to save lives and win wars.





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