Industry Seeking to Better Align Research Investments With DoD Needs

By Eric Beidel
CHARLESTON, S.C. — A communication disconnect between the Pentagon and industry on where to focus independent research and development (IRAD) efforts has threatened to hinder the advancement of technologies and has kept companies from seeing returns on their investments, government and industry officials said.
“Now more than ever that open dialogue is needed,” said Alan R. Shaffer, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering. “The budget deficit is going to force hard choices," he told industry and government officials at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Science and Engineering Technology Conference.
The Pentagon needs new ideas, he said. That is why science and technology funding was shielded from deeper cuts seen elsewhere in the president’s proposed fiscal year 2013 budget. Science and technology represents 11 percent of the budget but only takes 7 percent of the cuts. Basic research accounts are being spared from a $259 billion spending cut projected for the Defense Department over the next five years.
Shaffer said that that current R&D focus areas are technologies that help troops fight in contested areas, electronic attack, cyberspace, missile defense, undersea warfare and hypersonic weapons.
Other priorities include building and manufacturing systems more quickly, human-machine interfacing and autonomy. In the near term, the military could be using autonomous systems to clear routes and as underwater sensors. Fully autonomous weapons are further off, Shaffer said.
Industry and academia are listening.
Purdue University professor Zyg Pizlo is working on giving robots 3D vision like humans. In order for machines to perform the functions of humans, “they have to see like us,” Pizlo said.
The Defense Department recently launched a website to try to strengthen information sharing between the government and industry on independent research projects.
The site The Defense Department will use it to disseminate details about its priorities as well as to keep tabs on what research projects are under way throughout industry, officials said.
But some executives are expressing concern that the site may not go as deep into the details as they want. They said that Defense Department websites often provide information about programs that already have contractors and funding in place and fail to do an adequate job telling industry where science and technology funding opportunities are still available.
“I don’t have a solution for that,” Shaffer said in response to concerns about the new site. He said that there was no sure-fire way to ensure that the site remains active and up to date, but he assured executives that if they had a valuable idea, the Defense Department would find a way to fund it.
The administration wants to create a high-risk, high-reward environment, said Thomas Kalil, deputy director for policy at the White House’s office of science and technology policy.
This means inspiring innovation by offering prizes along the way, he said.
The Air Force Research Laboratory recently gave such a prize — $25,000 — to a retired mechanical engineer from Peru for coming up with a system to stop an uncooperative fleeing car or truck without damaging the vehicle or harming its occupants. The solution involves a remote electric-powered vehicle that can accelerate up to 130 mph within 3 seconds, position itself under the fleeing car, and automatically trigger a restrained airbag to lift the car and slide it to a stop.
The Air Force is now going to build a prototype based on the design.
It used to be that research and technology development within the defense sector would trickle down to the commercial sector, but things are beginning to move in the opposite direction, Kalil said. The Defense Department needs to think more in terms of “spin-on” technologies rather than products it spins-off into the commercial market, he said. The White House has shown a willingness to experiment with novel contracting methods to take advantage of some of this commercial technology, he said.
“At the end of the day, we have to go back to being entrepreneurs,” Chew said. “I believe in the free market. I believe that good ideas get funded” and eventually end up in the field, he said.

Topics: Business Trends, Doing Business with the Government, Partnering, Defense Contracting, Defense Department, DOD Budget, Infotech, Manufacturing, Missile Defense, Procurement, Defense Department, Robotics, Science and Engineering Technology

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