The Pentagon, well aware that private sector innovation has outstripped its own in key technologies, is expanding its courtship of industry with a new pilot program that encourages academic industry collaboration on what it calls “use-inspired basic research.” The program will concentrate on development projects aimed at creating applications that can be implemented in the field.

The Department of Defense (DoD) last week announced an award competition for the pilot, the Defense Enterprise Science Initiative (DESI), which is designed to put teams of university and industry researchers to work on finding “novel solutions to challenging defense and national security problems,” according to a DoD announcement. In the process, the Pentagon also hopes to accelerate the process of research, development, and acquisition in order to put new devices and applications to use quickly.

The initial competition for grants under the program will focus on sensing, mobility, and autonomy, three areas where DoD has lagged behind commercial innovation. As laid out in a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) issued by DESI and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, a DESI project essentially will follow a three-step process. Industry will identify a national security challenge, then collaborate with a university research team, which will “invent or discover knowledge” that can lead to a new way to solve the challenge. Finally, the industry team will develop the research results into something DoD can acquire and use.

Specifically, the Air Force is looking for small, agile, autonomous drones modeled after bats and insects that would be more stealthy, maneuverable, and sturdy than current drones. The research would employ new developments in high-resolution sensors, miniaturization of processors, and flight control algorithms. The new technologies will be put to use overcoming a drone’s primary challenge: squeezing more power out of its batteries.

Batteries are either too heavy to be practical, or too limited to last long enough for a mission. DESI is looking for new approaches to wireless power beaming, possibly using new transmission methods with lasers, microwaves, or electromagnetic frequencies. If successful, power beaming also could be applied to any number of communications devices and weapons systems used out in the field.

DESI builds on the efforts of the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx), which was launched in August 2015 with the opening of a Pentagon satellite office in the Silicon Valley and later given a more national focus. A key theme of DIUx is agility – working quickly, taking what works, and abandoning what doesn’t.

“Doing business with the tech industry forces DoD to look ourselves in the mirror, which is healthy for any organization,” then Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said in launching DIUx. “In this case, it’s helped us not only identify successes but also our shortcomings, both in how we engage with tech companies here and in the tools we use to accelerate the uptake of technology in the department.”

The lure to industry is the potential payoff down the road, via DoD contracts or the commercialization of new technologies. The seed money isn’t a lot, DESI has a maximum grant total of $6 million, and DIUx has a budget of $30 million. This is small change compared with a Pentagon budget of $692 billion, but new technologies courmyld lead to new opportunities. DIUx promotes this idea with a button on its home page that reads, “Enter a $100+ Billion Market.”

Proposals for DESI must be submitted to by Feb. 28.

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