MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. – The Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) is set on improving military access to space with commercial contracts, with a focus on responsive launch capabilities and contributing to a department-wide effort to build a mesh network of sensors in Low-Earth Orbit.

Four years after its inception, DIU has lost the “X” once positioned at the end of its name for “experimental” and pushed forward with a mission to accelerate the Defense Department’s adoption of commercial technology through rapid prototyping of products already in the marketplace.

The space launch sector has rapidly expanded and DIU is positioned to help bring new commercial solutions to the Defense Department, said Rachel Kolesnikov-Lindsey, space portfolio program manager at DIU.

“We see a lot of benefit to being able to put more assets in space more rapidly [and] more responsibly at a regular cadence, as opposed to the older system of planning these launches two, three years out from when they were originally going to happen,” she said in an interview at DIU’s headquarters here.

“That has been extremely gratifying to work with these commercial companies and help them continue to grow and mature but also help DoD get our assets on space in a much more responsive manner than we can do,” she added.

The market place for launch providers that DIU draws on has grown over even just the past two years, Kolesnikov-Lindsey said. At that time, the organization issued a problem statement of putting a system weighing up to 450 pounds into Low-Earth Orbit and received 24 responses, she noted.

“We knew about a good number of them, but we didn’t realize that there were two dozen [U.S.] companies all working to be able to put assets into space. And that was two years ago, and so now there’s more as well,” she said.

DIU’s space sector is also working to assist with a joint effort led by organizations including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the nascent Space Development Agency (SDA) to develop a proliferated enmeshed network layer in LEO from largely commercial systems.

DARPA is researching the feasibility of buying off-the-shelf small satellites, equipping them with military sensors and deploying a constellation in LEO via its Blackjack program, and the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (AFSMC), which is contributing funding, has expressed a desire to transition that architecture into a program of record dubbed CASINO (Commercially Augmented Space Inter Networked Operations) in the early 2020s. SDA leadership has pushed for Blackjack to move into its future portfolio.

Meanwhile, DIU has issued a solicitation in competition currently called CASINO Ground Pad that would prototype the ground segment of a new mesh layer in LEO, to integrate data collected from Blackjack and process, exploit and disseminate it for users, said Air Force Col. Steve Butow, DIU’s space portfolio director.

The goal of DIU’s contribution is “how do we process information from that type of proliferated constellation of satellites using advanced analytics capabilities from a commercial world,” Butow said in an interview.

Per the original solicitation, the CASINO Ground Pad effort is intended to “deliver processed data in a format usable by tactical users deployed to forward operating locations.”

“This prototype effort will result in the generation of a process recommendation, along with an associated hardware and software solution using Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) data as a test case delivering capability to users in any [Continental United States] or forward operating location,” the solicitation said. The prototype must be delivered fully integrated and ready for data capture within 18 months of award, but 12 months are preferred.

The partnership between DIU, DARPA and AFSMC on the Blackjack effort is emblematic of how the Defense Department’s innovation centers are working together to find solutions for the U.S. military’s biggest needs more rapidly, Butow noted.

“We have this common umbrella that we’re all working under, and that’s just to make sure we don’t have gaps [and] we can leverage the technical expertise, which has worked out great for us,” he said.

“Part of the challenge is making sure that Congress sees the value of how we’re all working together,” he added, noting that each office sticks to its strengths. “It would be out of place for us to try to take on a research and development role that DARPA is working on.”

2018 marked several significant milestones for the whole organization: In February, what was then DiuX was placed under the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. In August, Pentagon leadership removed the “X” from DIUx, marking its permanence within the department.

“The real hallmark of success is we’ve survived now several secretaries of defense [and] an administration change,” Butow said. “We’re becoming more of a normal organization in DoD, but we’re not losing the unique attributes that we were created to help facilitate.”

DIU has also opened offices conveniently nestled in tech hubs across the country, including Austin and Boston, while maintaining its headquarters in Silicon Valley.

In September, the unit welcomed Michael Brown, the former presidential innovation fellow and CEO of Symantec, as its new director, following original director Raj Shah’s departure earlier in the year.

And in November, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord provided DIU with the authority to award other transaction agreements (OTAs), which allowed the unit to set up internal contracting mechanisms for the first time. It also took steps to improve the Commercial Solutions Opening (CSO) contracting process it launched in 2016 to competitively award prototype contracts at commercial speeds, in partnership with Army Contracting Command.