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Defense Technology Sought in Non-Traditional Markets 

11  2,012 

By Sandra I. Erwin 



Software that was developed for the U.S. Army to create a battlefield network could be repurposed to protect the nation’s electrical grid. Domestic law-enforcement agencies need communications systems that are similar to those that connect troops in war zones. The sensors that help soldiers detect buried bombs in Afghanistan also have application in NASA interplanetary probes.

Pentagon officials often lament that the government no longer leads the innovation revolution as it did during the Cold War. But there is still considerable demand for Defense Department-funded technology, industry and government officials insist.

The challenge is not a dearth of innovation but rather the difficulties in matching the supply with the demand.

Case in point is the energy sector, where regional utilities are looking to the defense industry to help build “smart” electrical grids that distribute energy more efficiently and also are hardened against cyber-attacks.

“The energy industry is undergoing the largest transformation in history,” says Michael Niggli, president and chief operating officer of San Diego Gas & Electric, a supplier of electricity and natural gas in Southern California.

Pentagon-funded technologies in the areas of smart grids and encryption are needed more than ever, Niggli says. “For the security of the grid, we coalesce with the defense industry.”

Niggli is part of a wide-ranging group of energy, defense, information-technology firms, universities, public safety and government agencies based in Southern California that are trying to promote partnerships as a way to ease the transfer of technology from suppliers to customers.

The group, called the Technolink Association, has approximately 100 members, said its founder, Ssusan Forte O’Neill. Technolink members recently spoke with National Defense about what they believe is a growing need for public-private partnerships to boost innovation in the national security sector.

In the energy arena, there is valuable technology that the military needs, says Niggli. In Southern California, “We’re square one in technology innovations in renewable energy. …. We have the highest penetration of solar power and the largest rollout of electric vehicles.” The U.S. military, meanwhile, wants to be greener and reduce fuel costs. Ongoing research in the energy sector on batteries and microgrids is particularly relevant to the Defense Department, he adds.

Top Pentagon contractor The Boeing Co. has been making forays into the energy sector in hopes of diversifying its defense business. A new arm of Boeing’s Southern California-based weapons laboratory Phantom Works, called Phantom Works Ventures, specifically is targeting opportunities in smart grid work, says Daryl Pelc, vice president of engineering and technology at Boeing Phantom Works.

One of Boeing’s largest military programs, the Future Combat Systems, was terminated in 2009 after the Army decided it was too complex and too expensive. Pieces of the command-and-control “middleware” software that was developed to connect weapon systems are now being dusted off and possibly recycled for electric-grid use, Pelc says. “We think we can adapt the capability that started with the Army’s Future Combat Systems program,” he says. “The middleware software can be applied to the different nodes that make up the grid.”

Boeing also has tapped into its Hughes Research Laboratory, which is a joint venture with General Motors Corp., to bring HRL’s latest advances in microelectronics and communications technology into its satellite and aircraft businesses, Pelc says. The goal is to design a new class of small satellites that would compete for civilian and military work at different price points.

Eugene Tattini, deputy director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, says there are myriad opportunities for technology sharing with the private sector. JPL, for example, is working with the space sector to help manufacturers lower the weight of satellites. The lab’s extensive knowledge of remote sensing is another area where the defense industry and the Pentagon could derive benefit, says Tattini.

“A lot of research and engineering talent has gone into radar, hyperspectral sensors, data fusion and data processing,” he says. Much of the work could help Defense Department programs, says Tattini. “Our scientists look for discrete chemical signatures in other planets. … That is applicable to Defense Department needs in IED [improvised explosive device] detection.”

Other organizations that have increasing demands for technology are local law enforcement agencies. Although they are often cash strapped, public safety programs can be valuable partners for defense contractors, says Sandra Hutchens, sheriff-coroner of Orange County, Calif. Before taking her current post, Hutchens for four years was division chief for the office of homeland security and a legislative liaison to Washington, D.C. The Department of Homeland Security’s advisory council assists her office in counterterrorism efforts.

Law-enforcement agencies in localities such as Orange Country have significant needs for military technologies, such as drones and nonlethal weapons, Hutchens says. Networking technologies to link disparate information systems are in great demand, she says. “We looked at some of the technology used in Afghanistan to detect bomb signatures and share warnings via iPads, smartphones and notebook computers.”

The OC sheriff has seen federal funding for anticrime programs cut in recent years, which means there is far less money for equipment, she says. “When you’re faced with economic challenges it drives you to become creative.” Hutchens believes that one method of getting what you can’t afford is private-public partnership.

Kevin B. McDonald, executive vice president of Alvaka Networks, in Irvine, helped Hutchens recruit industry volunteers. “This is potentially a national model, he says. “Counties have budget challenges. … [Hutchens] got private sector consulting” from volunteer firms at no cost, McDonald says. “Hutchens was able to get the highest level consulting on security and technology to help the department move forward without having to spend precious law enforcement dollars,” he says. “We’ve actually been able to get high-level people to volunteer their time.”

Alvaka Networks, for its part, is promoting teaming arrangements between law enforcement agencies and security firms. Companies can agree to share their surveillance cameras with law enforcement. They pay for a digital video recorder converter that provides online access to law enforcement. “It saves law enforcement money and enhances homeland security and first-responders’ access to emergency information,” McDonald says.

Hutchens insists that she would like to see more advanced technology cascade down from federal agencies, such as underwater surveillance to help her office combat drug smugglers and human traffickers.  

“I’m pretty excited about some new technologies such as unmanned submarines,” says Hutchens. “We patrol 43 miles of coastline.”

Photo Credit: iStockphoto
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