It’s Time to Take a Technology Scout Tour


Dr. Mark Bilinski (right), a mathematician at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific, discusses his work with Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson.

By Katherine Connor

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is pushing hard for increased collaboration between private industry and the military as part of the Department of Defense’s (DoD) Third Offset Strategy, which focuses heavily on technological superiority.

In August 2015, Carter opened the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental in Silicon Valley, which is meant to serve as a conduit for technology matching and information flow between the two communities, and pledged to establish a Defense Digital Service that would bring top talent from private firms into the DoD for a temporary stint to increase efficiency and agility. In February 2016, Carter established the Innovation Advisory Board, headed by 12 industry executives, to advise department leaders on organizational and technical challenges.

Carmela Keeney, executive director of Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SSC) Pacific, is taking the call for collaboration a step further. In addition to bringing smart people into the DoD to solve these problems, why not also send the laboratory’s smart people out to industry to gain insight into rapidly evolving technology areas, to identify defense uses for that technological capability and pinpoint research gaps on which neither DoD nor industry are concentrating?

The first cohort of the groundbreaking SSC Pacific “technology scout tour” kicked off in February 2016. Three researchers focusing on autonomy, trusted computing, and quantum information received funding for two months of part-time work over four months to go to the physical hub of their research area; develop partnerships with companies, universities, and organizations conducting cutting-edge research; and bring that knowledge back to SSC Pacific to match industry solutions with defense needs.

The technology scout tour is open to civilian personnel and allows employees to continue working on their current projects while scouting for beneficial advances. The tour differs from the Secretary of Defense Executive Fellows Program, which is only for active-duty service members and is for two years, requiring personnel to disengage from their organization.

“I think private industry has smart technologies that will close some of the research gaps we have—they are ahead of us in creating novel technologies in certain areas,” said Olinda Rodas, a scientist in the User-Centered Design and Engineering Division at SSC Pacific. SSC Pacific selected Rodas as a technology scout for autonomy, and she has a particular interest in locating key autonomy algorithms.

“For instance, the Google self-driven car project is using multiple autonomy algorithms that could benefit many different projects at SSC Pacific,” Rodas said. “The trick is to think out of the box.”

One project in particular is the Intelligent Multi-Unmanned Vehicle Planner with Adaptive Collaborative/Control Technologies, which is developing autonomous system capabilities to allow one human to supervise multiple teams of unmanned vehicles at the same time. The project is being conducted along with the Army, Air Force, and Naval Research Laboratory. The team, which includes Rodas, has hit a sticking point; they need algorithms that can prioritize and allocate tasks for the autonomous systems, and determine which tasks should be completed by the system and which would best be done by a human.

Rodas said some of these algorithms almost certainly exist in the private sector, and many are likely even open source, but there’s no one dedicated to finding them and no existing partnerships to leverage.

“It’s a matter of having someone assigned to that position of searching for new technologies, determining possible matches for current projects and establishing new collaborations and partnerships with industry and other government labs,” Rodas said.

In the case of David Lee, who is scouting for the latest advances in trusted computing (specifically in data integrity, data transfer, cloud computing, and cryptographic encryption), he isn’t looking for any specific capability. Instead, he is focused on working with the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental and In-Q-Tel—an independent, nonprofit venture capital organization bridging the gap between the US intelligence community and commercial firms—to leverage their connections to develop partnerships with private companies and find ways of making this information flow mutually beneficial.

“One of the challenges is how do we create a win-win environment for them as well as for us,” Lee said. “That’s part of SSC Pacific’s outreach effort. When we meet with the Googles of the world, we can’t just knock on the door of these companies and say, ‘Hey open your door, give us your good ideas, the latest and greatest you’re working on’— that’s not going to work. We need to partner with them.”

Rodas agreed that getting a foot in the door will be a big part of what this first group of scouts is tasked with, but she said some of the specific technologies she’s interested in have a saving grace: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

“Google has funding from DARPA,” she said. “Most of the projects I’m looking at are funded by DARPA, so they’re DoD properties. We can go talk to the program managers and say,‘We’re interested in this.’”

The same goes for Dr. Joanna Ptasinski, an SSC Pacific electronics engineer in the Advanced Photonics Technologies Branch and the technology scout investigating quantum computing. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory is involved in the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity’s (IARPA) Quantum Enhanced Optimization (QEO) program and built a test bed to examine QEO products. Ptasinski said lab personnel also have an in-depth knowledge of how quantum systems work, are involved in the fabrication of quantum devices, and are versed in quantum algorithms.

Since IARPA is involved in the project, Ptasinski and SSC Pacific will have easier access to some of the government deliverables associated with QEO.

Ptasinski also plans to collaborate with the NASA Ames Research Center, which partnered with Google to purchase a quantum computer, and leases out time on the machine to third parties. These quantum computers are ideal for solving optimization problems such as planning the locations of multiple unmanned aerial vehicles in relation to one another, and position, time, and navigation challenges in a defense setting.

Once the scouts make these connections and develop these partnerships, the goal is to become experts on the cutting-edge technologies and tools available in their field and bring that knowledge and their connections back to SSC Pacific.

Technology Scout 2

Dr. Joanna Ptasinski is a Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific electronics engineer in the Advanced Photonics Technologies Branch and the technology scout investigating quantum computing.

“Through the technology scout program, we are investing in developing subject matter expertise in both the scout and the center in a new and rapidly evolving commercial technology,” said Doug Evans, deputy for program development for the Enterprise Communications and Networks Division at SSC Pacific and the chair of the midcareer professional program, which is bootstrapping the technology scout program. “We want the scout to become a catalyst for their assigned technology, sharing the knowledge with coworkers and sponsors when they return full time to the center. They’ll have a handle on how this technology can be used in naval and DoD applications, and help develop a strategy for starting new SSC Pacific business initiatives based on what they’ve learned.”

“Maybe they start a new group or business area,” Evans said. “These scouts should take ownership of that technology and work with others to grow new business here at SSC Pacific.”

Lee said his idea of success would be to facilitate technology matching between capabilities from industry and projects at SSC Pacific that could benefit from those technologies. Rodas added that even identifying where industry does not have solutions is useful.

“When you find a gap in a particular research domain, you can use that for generating research proposals,” Rodas said. “So the benefit for us is win-win. You can come up with proposals for innovative research, or solutions for the problems that we have here.”

The program is so new that many details are still being worked out, but Evans said interest has been hot, and he expects the number of technology scout opportunities to expand in future years for those employees who have the required five years of employment at SSC Pacific.

“We want to create a bridge between [the Office of Naval Research] and places like Silicon Valley,” Lee said. “Maybe we can be that conduit.”

Breadth over Depth

While the technology scout tour is the latest way the center is supporting the Secretary of Defense’s Force of the Future mission, it’s not the only one. SSC Pacific has a variety of opportunities meant to broaden and deepen the STEM knowledge of the existing workforce.

The midcareer professionals program (MCPP) offers 25 SSC Pacific technologists each year the chance to spend three months expanding their knowledge of the system engineering lifecycle by working in a different division within the center, and then bringing that knowledge back to their own codes to improve processes and products.

“You become better at making products successful in the fleet because you understand how the wiring of product development goes,” said Evans, noting that the MCPP is open to technologists with at least 10 years of technical experience, though not all of that experience must be at SSC Pacific. “You know the technology, you have that expertise— what’s the next step? How do you understand how everything gets into the warfighter’s hands from a system-of-systems perspective?”

One MCPP tour places employees at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command Program Executive Office of Science and Technology where they gain an understanding of how technology is transitioned to the fleet or to a program of record. For three months, the researcher puts his or hers work on hold to focus on either getting a certain project to a program of record, or on a related goal, such as determining a better way to facilitate SSC Pacific’s technology transition efforts, such as working on Office of Naval Research transition proposals, or developing interagency agreements.

Another opportunity that has received keen interest is the Joint Maritime Tactics Course (JMTC) offered at US 3rd Fleet for military officers who served on shore duty for a time and are preparing to head back to sea. The course provides a refresher on warfare tactics and maritime dominance strategies. Thanks to the center’s close working relationship with 3rd Fleet, any extra seats in the course are opened to SSC Pacific personnel, who gain a deeper understanding of where their technologies go, how they will be used, and what warfighters experience on deployment.

JMTC was first offered in the fourth quarter of 2015 to six SSC Pacific personnel. The goal is to fund 18 center employees to take the two-week course each year.

From the Bottom up

These top-down approaches work well because executive leaders approve and support these efforts, but the flow of information and ideas goes both ways. The scientists and engineers who develop the technology are creating many grassroots educational efforts as well.

Take the Machine Learning Workforce Development initiative, for instance. Dr. Mark Bilinski, a mathematician at SSC Pacific and member of its machine learning community, said the roughly 15-person group saw the strong interest in machine learning and its relevance to codes across the center. The group applied for Navy Innovative Science and Engineering (NISE) program workforce development funds to craft a three-part training program for center personnel wanting to incorporate machine learning concepts into their projects and research.

“We knew we had a very small group of people who would be Ph.D. level, who went to school for machine learning, who knew what this is and were ready to do projects,” said Bilinski. “Then we had a lot of people who felt, ‘This is important, we need to know more about it, we’re technically savvy, but we didn’t go to school for machine learning. We need to know enough to be able to do our day job and bring some of these tools in and start leveraging that capability.’”

Through the NISE funding, Bilinski and his colleagues compiled data and algorithm repositories on the center’s wiki site and high performance computer for use during a two-day workshop they developed. The workshop, which was held in SSC Pacific’s new Collaborative Innovation Lab, initially had 20 slots, but demand was so high it was opened to 33 engineers and scientists from among SSC Pacific’s codes. A seminar component was also provided for experts in machine learning to add new skills to their repertoire.

A Deep Learning Workforce Development initiative is now under way, with participants going through a structured online class together.

About the author:

Katherine Connor is a staff writer with Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific.


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