R&D strategy leverages innovation, partnerships
By Derek Kaufman , Air Force Research Laboratory
/ Published January 04, 2016
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- The stakes are high for Department of Defense leaders seeking to equip the U.S. military force of the future.
In addition to the ever-present and evolving dangers presented by global terrorism, defense planners face proliferating and increasingly sophisticated cyber threats by nation-states, organized crime and other actors.
As Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work told attendees of the Reagan National Defense Forum in November, the Department will meet these demands by incorporating new operational and organizational constructs, relying heavily on innovation, teaming and collaboration between industry, academia and the defense laboratories.
The October standup of the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental in California's Silicon Valley is one endeavor to establish new information technology sector connections to harness innovation for the military.
"DoD needs the ability to quickly adapt others' technologies for our purposes and do it more rapidly than our adversaries who have access to the same resources," said Maj. Gen. Tom Masiello, commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory.
Masiello said productive engagement with both large and small businesses already underpins the development of AFRL's advanced technologies, and this trend will continue. He highlighted AFRL Industry Days and Technology Interchange Meetings as events where Air Force officials highlight capability gaps and needs to focus industry research and development efforts.
Additionally, AFRL hosts "Deep Dives" with major defense industry partners. These detailed reviews of AFRL science and technology portfolios reveal challenges and opportunities. The idea is to establish a longer-term vision of shared government and industry objectives and invite new approaches to solving technology challenges. AFRL held four such engagements in 2015 and plans to reach out to more industry partners in 2016.
Small business is critical to the Laboratory. AFRL exceeded its overall Fiscal Year 2015 goal of 39 percent of contract awards to small businesses, said Bill Harrison, the Laboratory's Small Business Lead.
AFRL Small Business Collider Events are a recent addition to the AFRL industry outreach mix. "These free and open events, focused around specific technology areas, are popular with entrepreneurs, industry, and university researchers," Harrison said. "They help strengthen the Air Force industrial base and benefit small technology businesses by identifying new commercial markets for promising Air Force technology."
This year the AFRL Small Business Hub at Wright-Brothers Institute in Dayton, Ohio grew to nearly 450 members, held 70 collider events and 210 one-on-one meetings to assist businesses and link them with the Laboratory, according to Harrison.
About 300 people from across the U.S. converged on a similar "Commercialization Catalyst" event held Dec. 4 in Dayton. The event featured presentations on a dozen AFRL technologies as candidates for entrepreneurial investment to commercial markets.
"We're building trust and relationships with these small business partners who then become better positioned to support us with their creative ideas. This is win-win and a bridge to speed innovation," Doug Ebersole, AFRL Executive Director said.
"Innovation doesn't happen in a vacuum. Innovation isn't just creating new things. It's frequently gathering existing products and using them in a new way," Ebersole said. "Our challenge is to do it faster than the other guy.
Ebersole said the diversity of ideas contributed by a variety of technology partners is important to delivering the agility DoD seeks in an uncertain world.
"Agility is all about adapting technology faster. It's about harnessing creativity to solve technical problems--such as using a technology that was invented for one purpose for something completely different, inside or outside of the military," said Ebersole.
"This kind of agility requires the entire community of researchers from the Federal Labs, research organizations like DARPA, small and large businesses, and universities, to really collaborate and understand what each can offer to the others. We leverage investment and acceleration speed to market by connecting the communities."
Maj. Gen. Masiello believes today's research in game-changing technologies like hypersonics, autonomy, unmanned systems, and directed energy will play an important role in protecting our nation.
"Hypersonics enables us to fly to a target at Mach 6, directed energy is about precise effects at the speed of light, autonomy is focused on things like Airmen-machine teaming and big data analytics to make faster, better-informed decisions. We're on a path to enable these things and they will give our future warfighters an unfair advantage over their adversaries--which is exactly what we want."