What are the main barriers to innovation faced by the US DoD? As US Army Futures Command, how do these barriers affect the way you work with SMEs, academia or non-profits?
Well, first, I would say 'barrier' is a little bit of a misnomer. We have access to a ton of innovation – both within our own research and development labs and centres – and through cooperative agreements and contracts with academia and industry. But, that's one of the strengths of America, I think. There's so much innovation out there – within the private sector, in small businesses, and industry that doesn't normally work on government contracts. So, a part of the solution is scoping our problems in a way non-traditional partners can understand. The defence prime industries are very comfortable with the bureaucratic requirements language that has evolved over the past 70+ years – but much of it wouldn't make sense to the average person. To tap into new and non-traditional innovation partners we had to address how we describe the problems we need help solving.
The Field Artillery Autonomous Resupply (FAAR) programme is a great example of this. We brought a few artillery soldiers in and had them explain what it physically meant to configure ammunition for firing. It basically entails moving hundreds of 97lb (circa 44kg) shells from a delivery truck to the firing line – sometimes as much as 100 meters. A great workout – but it doesn't take an engineer to see that's sub-optimal. Had we done this traditionally, the requirement document would have been at least a dozen or so pages – and full of technical jargon. Most folks that aren't used to dealing with all of that just won't bother. So, we're changing how we describe our problems to open the aperture on who can help us address them. The second part of that is changing how we pay businesses to work with us. Defence contracts are notoriously slow. If you're a traditional defence contract industry, you can build that into your business model. But if you're a start-up or small business – you can't afford to wait 90 or 120 days for a contract to come through. We've been able to leverage some flexibility Congress authorized a few years ago to award payments quickly – that gets more of these non-traditional partners interested.
Now, I should also point out, we're taking a similar approach across the board. Instead of starting with a highly detailed requirements document – we're starting with desired characteristics and asking industry – traditional and otherwise – to leverage their own innovation in achieving those characteristics. That seems intuitive, but we were traditionally very prescriptive in our requirements – and that doesn't leverage the creativity our partners can provide.
How can your partnership with Capital Factory help break these barriers down?
Well, the example I gave – FAAR – came out of our Army Applications Lab at Capital Factory. The ecosystem they provide was primed for us by groups like the Defense Innovation Unit and AFWERX [the US Air Force's innovation cell]. Capital Factory isn't a defence ecosystem per se. They didn't start out that way – and it's still not their focus. That gives us access to a host of non-traditional partners we wouldn't see otherwise. But, on the flip side – because there are multiple defence-focused groups at Capital Factory, it gives us the opportunity to maximize that exposure across the Department of Defense. The environment is supportive – not competitive. Just because we may not be interested in a technology someone has to offer, doesn't mean it's not a good fit somewhere else in the Department of Defense. Having Army Applications Lab, AFWERX, the Defense Innovation Unit, and others all within Capital Factory allows us to share technologies and innovation that come through the door – almost instantaneously. And – it provides non-traditional businesses exposure across multiple DoD portfolios as one-stop-shop. That synergy across services and agencies will only become more important as budgets start to tighten.
How do you achieve this and how quickly can a project come to fruition and be implemented within the army?
Most of what we see with the Army Applications Lab will contribute to a major signature system. These are the systems our cross-functional teams are working on to deliver the capability we need for multi-domain operations. Things like extended range cannon artillery or future attack reconnaissance aircraft. So some of that timing depends on the system we're talking about. It's faster – a lot faster. Traditionally, it takes us at least a decade, usually more to go from "good idea" to putting something in soldiers' hands. To continue the FAAR example, we started that last year, mid-2019. It's still in competition, but we've already had prototype demonstrations and are on schedule for its fielding in 2023 – so we've cut it down from 10 years to four. Now, some of that is because we'll use it to support our Extended Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA) – which is also currently in development. So aspects of FAAR can't be finalized until ERCA is more mature. But that's a good example of the non-linear, yet synchronized approach we're taking.
Across the enterprise though, we are dramatically accelerating our timelines. A lot of this goes back to the changes we're making in how we present problems to our industry partners. We partnered with Microsoft to build an advanced set of goggles that will replace traditional night vision for our close combat troops – it's the Integrated Visual Augmentation System – or IVAS. Now Microsoft obviously isn't a start-up or small business, but they are an example of a non-traditional partner. Through these goggles, we are pioneering a new approach to industry partnership, I call it Soldier Centered Design. The centrepiece is Soldier Touch Points, where we put very early prototypes on soldiers, gather feedback, and build a new prototype to do it all over again. Microsoft is doing this in three-week sprints. Every three weeks, soldiers are using and evaluating the goggles. What's important about this though, is the fact that we didn't lay down a set of prescriptive requirements when we started. Each iteration is an opportunity to learn and better understand what our requirements really are. We started IVAS not quite two years ago – we will being fielding them next year.
I'm excited about advancements in virtual environments and the use of digital twins. With an individual piece of kit like IVAS – it's a little easier to turn out new prototypes every three weeks. When we start talking about crewed systems like helicopters and armoured vehicles – that becomes cost-prohibitive. However, things like virtual cockpits and simulations allow us to continue broadly listing characteristics to industry and allowing them to refine the product with the end user – our soldiers.
I also have to mention the Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA) policy Dr. Bruce Jette recently signed. Bruce is the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisitions, Logistics, and Technology (ASA/ALT) – he's my key partner in all of our modernization efforts. MOSA creates a framework that will allow our future systems to be more easily upgraded through both software and hardware upgrades. It gives us even more opportunity to leverage non-traditional partnerships through the improvement of subsystems without having to go through the costly process of building an entirely new system.
What does success look like for AAL at the Capital Factory?
I think ultimately, success looks like Soldiers benefiting from the latest technology development. You know I tell people – if my daughters asked me for cell phones in 2010 and I gave them flip phones in 2020, they wouldn't be too happy about that. But that's what we've been doing to our Soldiers. So, for me, success is being able to leverage existing technology without it taking a decade or more.
Of course, it's also about benefit across the DoD. Naturally, I want the Army Applications Lab working on our priorities – but that means some really interesting technology just isn't going to fit into our portfolios. So success is also about raising the overall access to innovation across the DoD through a multi-service ecosystem – the Army Applications Lab collaboratively contributes to that access with groups like the Defense Innovation Unit and AFWERX.
What technologies is the AFC hoping to innovate and accelerate with the Capital Factory?
Generally, it's the six US Army's modernization priorities – long range precision fires, next generation combat vehicles, future vertical lift, network, air and missile defence, and soldier lethality – those remain constant. Within these priorities, our eight cross-functional teams are focused on the programmes that are most important to the Army, we call those the 31+3 signature systems. There are also a lot of implied tasks – subsystems and supporting systems – associated with every one of these programmes. Capital Factory gives us access to an ecosystem that allows us to accelerate development in some of these areas. As far as specific technologies, the Army Applications Lab keeps a full running list on their website, but some examples are robotics, machine learning, data visualization, power generation – it's a pretty wide band.
How could the benefits of this collaboration be extended to the wider US DoD procurement process or the NATO procurement processes?
We'll, as I've mentioned a couple of times, we're already seeing the benefit of this within the DoD. I think as a model, services will have to become more collaborative – Capital Factory is a great demonstration of that collaboration within the non-traditional space. I think there are tremendous opportunities to broaden how we work together – from basic research to joint systems. And we're doing that. Hypersonics is a great example of joint collaboration on a major system. We've greatly accelerated our hypersonics work due in large part to the efforts of all the services.
In terms of Allies and partners – we have research collaboration in both Europe and the Indo-Pacific region focused on building relationships to cooperatively develop the technologies we'll need to both compete and – if required win. As our Chief likes to say – winning matters. I like to add, winning matters, but winning together matters more. I think within the US, and with those nations that have agreed to collaborate with us in the fight against Covid-19, no one can dispute the power of 'winning together'.
This interview was first published in the third edition of the NITECH magazine. Read the full magazine on Issuu here.