Innovation Hub Connects Industry, Academia with NATO

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

Photo: Getty

NORFOLK, Va. — Located nearby hulking destroyers and aircraft carriers docked in Norfolk, Virginia, is the NATO Innovation Hub, an organization tasked with researching some of the alliance’s toughest technological issues.

The hub is part of NATO’s Allied Command Transformation, which explores new and emerging technologies and concepts to prepare for tomorrow’s battles.
The purpose of the command is to look into the future, said Serge Da Deppo, manager of the innovation hub. “A big part of the job in our command is to develop new capabilities that are meant to be efficient in facing new challenges.”

The command — which employs about 600 people at Naval Station Norfolk — is also in charge of education and training for NATO forces as they prepare for current and upcoming operations, he added.

The innovation hub — which is located at a separate office on the Old Dominion University campus — was created six years ago when leaders at the command realized that many of the technological nuts they were trying to crack required more input from industry and academia, he said.

“Most of the future challenges that they have to prepare for are really outside of the traditional military business,” Da Deppo told National Defense during a visit to the hub.

“We in house don’t have all the expertise needed to understand those [upcoming] challenges and even less to prepare new solutions and capabilities,” he said. The organization is intended “to be the interface between NATO and the rest of the world with the purpose to collaborate with people who are smarter than us, who understand much better the environment and the future challenges, and will help NATO understand and figure out solutions,” he added.

Getting fresh perspectives on tough and enduring issues is important, said Marc Leydecker, an engineer at the hub, who has worked with NATO for nearly 30 years.

“If you are stuck … why don’t you ask academia or industry, and say, ‘Hey, how would you solve this issue?’” he said. “You get a whole different perspective, and I think that’s … [why] the innovation hub is so successful, because you get a whole slew of different ideas.”

For some time Western militaries were known as being on the cutting edge of new, emerging technology, but now they often fall behind, he said.

“Unfortunately, the military doesn’t evolve very rapidly because of bureaucracy,” Leydecker said. “If you want to see what the future will bring, you really need to be involved with academia and with the industry because they seem to evolve a lot faster than … we do.”

The location of the hub, being outside of the naval base, is convenient, he noted. It can often take days for security to clear a person for base access. Being off base allows for quick entry.
Da Deppo said being on the campus of Old Dominion is also useful because it allows the hub to work closely with bright academic minds.

“We have personal contact with academics every day,” he said. Besides Old Dominion, the hub works with many local and global universities.

Since its inception, the hub has worked on about 20 projects, he said. It is currently working on three major efforts, and five smaller programs, he added. The three main projects are focusing on cyberspace awareness, autonomous systems and disaster response missions.

The outfit, in conjunction with NATO headquarters, is in the midst of a study that explores the legal and ethical use of autonomous systems, said Francois du Cluzel, who heads the hub’s contribution to the project.

The organization is bringing together universities and small- to medium-sized enterprises around the world, and especially those from the Hampton Roads area, to contribute, he said.

The effort began in July. A concept and doctrine will likely be delivered by December 2018. The hub has already held a workshop where it reviewed what type of systems currently exist and where the future of warfare is going, as it pertains to autonomous systems, Du Cluzel said.

By the end of this year, a roadmap outlining goals and achievements for the study will be drafted, Da Deppo said. Implementation of that will begin next year.
The hub is also working on a project that started last year focusing on the cyber realm. It is creating an online portal where experts all over the world can share information about threats and vulnerabilities, he said.

The effort comes at a time of change for NATO, he noted. During the 2016 Warsaw Summit, the alliance announced that it now considers cyber to be a warfighting domain. That means “a whole swath of capabilities needs to be developed and the structure of managing that operation needs to be put in place,” Da Deppo said.

NATO is investing substantially in its cyber efforts, and the hub’s task is to take the communities it works with outside of the military and discover ways to better share information, he said.

“Those guys have, most of the time, the advantage of … an out-of-the-box look at the topic and have specific expertise, but they are not insiders,” he said. “They cannot touch things that are classified. They cannot talk about relations between states.”

An information-sharing platform is a good way to tap into those resources, he noted.

“We are developing that platform and community from which we hope to extract information on the cyber threat, share it with everyone, and maybe organize and coordinate responses in case of a crisis,” Da Deppo said.

The system could be thought of as a large-scale message board, he added. Anyone could join, but the platform would vet certain users as being trustworthy. There could also be different levels of sharing so trust could increase over time, he noted.

The hub wants to have a concept finished by the end of 2017, with experimentation beginning next year.

Leydecker noted that interested individuals, universities or companies that are not located in NATO member nations are still welcome to join.

Another major effort the innovation hub is facilitating is a challenge focused on disaster relief, said French Air Force Capt. Cedric Sauvion, who is leading the project.

The challenge — which started in August — focuses on technologies that could be used to assist a major metropolitan area after a super storm causes a breakdown in civil order. The scenario is set in a hypothetical coastal town that resembles Norfolk, Virginia, but that is more isolated. Participants must focus on one of four areas — medicine, security, logistics or energy, Sauvion said.
For the security component, technologies fielded could include improved identification systems such as biometrics or facial recognition systems, documents said. For medical, telemedicine solutions or medical evacuation would be of interest. For logistics and energy, more robust communication equipment could fit the bill.

Sauvion noted that those are only ideas, and the hub is not limiting what teams can bring to the table.

Out of 54 abstracts submitted, which included both U.S. and European teams, the innovation hub chose 10 groups to compete and present their technologies. The teams included APP Enterprises, Old Dominion University’s engineering management department, Bent Ray Communications, what3words, PPGS, Gravitence, SitScape, Fairwinds Technologies, Renovagen and LISNR.
Teams had until Oct. 25 to submit their solution, which could have included a concept or a prototype, Da Deppo said.

The winner was scheduled to be announced at the end of October. Prizes included a $15,000 development contract with the Defense Department and the opportunity to present the team’s technology at a NATO event, Da Deppo said. Old Dominion University will also be contributing an undisclosed award.

Sauvion noted that the challenge unintentionally resembled the situation that Houston, Texas, faced after widespread flooding from Hurricane Harvey in August.
“We didn’t mean that, but it’s quite the same,” he said. Natural disasters usually have common problems, such as security issues around looting, or first responders effectively treating wounded individuals.

Sauvion expected that autonomous systems would play a large role in many of the solutions that participants created.
Da Deppo noted that even if a team does not win the top prize, there are still benefits to having participated, such as increased visibility among NATO nations which could one day lead to contract awards.

Topics: Global Defense Market, International, Research and Development

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