Pentagon funding new high-tech venture

29 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter courts tech leaders in Silicon Valley.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter landed Friday at Moffett Federal Airfield for his second appearance in Silicon Valley in four months to reassure technology industry leaders that the Pentagon views their work as vital to the future of national defense. “I’ve been pushing the Pentagon to think outside our five-sided box and invest in innovation here in Silicon Valley and in tech communities across the country,” Carter said during a speech inside the world’s largest wind tunnel near the sprawling airfield. “Now we’re taking another step forward.” He announced that the Pentagon was investing $75 million in a consortium of more than 100 companies, including Apple Inc. and Boeing Co., called the Flexible Hybrid Electronic Institute, which specializes in wearable electronics.

The Pentagon is seeking partnership with US tech companies to develop sensory gear that could be worn by troops or used for diagnostics on ships and airplanes. With the investment, the Pentagon says it is making a bet on high technology that eventually could alert military members to electronic failures and structural problems. “Our troops will be able to lighten their loads with sensors and electronic gear embedded in their clothing, and wounded warriors will benefit from smart prosthetics that have the full flexibility of human skin,” he said.

More than 160 companies and academic institutions—including the likes of Apple, Boeing, General Motors, and Hewlett Packard—will work together as part of the new hub, dubbed the Manufacturing Innovation Institute for Flexible Hybrid Electronics. Carter as defense secretary has visited twice since he arrived at the Pentagon in February—the first defense chief to be here in at least two decades.

Speaking to business leaders and others at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Carter acknowledged the challenges of improving ties with a tech industry that is often wary, distrustful and frustrated with the government. In his tour through the valley, Carter visited LinkedIn’s campus in Mountain View and the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental, which was launched in April to scout promising technologies for the military.

This is only the latest of nine big-budget R&D centers established by the White House, which are focusing on 3-D printing, lightweight metals, non-silicon semiconductors, and other tech-centric areas. And I think that’s OK,” he said. “Addressing disagreements through partnership is better than not speaking at all.” Under the new plan, the Pentagon will provide $75 million, and the industry, academia and local government will contribute $96 million over five years to a newly created high-tech innovation institute. The massive wooden hangars that stored the airships still stand, but now they house robots, drones and other technology being developed by Google Inc.

Obama has been hiring tech talent away from Silicon Valley for some time, as Fast Company examined in a cover story earlier this summer: Todd Park, the former chief technology officer of the United States, and Mikey Dickerson, who led a team of 60 engineers at Google and supervised the crew that fixed the Healthcare.gov website last year… have been steadily recruiting an elite digital corps—a startup team, essentially, built mainly from the ranks of top private-sector companies—and embedding them within the U.S. government. With the participation of companies “as diverse as Apple and Lockheed Martin” and major research universities like Stanford and MIT, the project represents “the next chapter in the long-standing public-private partnerships between the Pentagon and tech community,” the Department of Defense said in a statement.

Their purpose is to remake the digital systems by which government operates, to implement the kind of efficiency and agility and effectiveness that define Silicon Valley’s biggest successes, across everything from the IRS to Immigration Services. “We’ve got about 140 people in the network right now,” Park says of the digital team. “The goal is to get it to about 500 by the end of 2016.” Whether Park and Dickerson can find enough superstar techies to take a flyer on this risky project is just one of many concerns. The DOD seeks to harness the “innovative culture of Silicon Valley” and accelerate the development cycle of these emerging technologies for military use in the Pentagon’s “world-class laboratories.” The Institute was launched under the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, a program to revitalize US manufacturing, launched by President Barack Obama in 2012.

There are bigger questions, too, such as whether a small number of technologists can actually bring about vast changes within the most massive, powerful, bureaucratic regime on earth. Carter has long warned of gaps in U.S. cyberdefense and has lambasted the Pentagon procurement system for taking too long to get useful technology to the military. The Pentagon sees the technology vastly improving its sensor capabilities, form medical monitoring to damage diagnostics. “The technologies promise dual use applications in both the consumer economy and the development of military solutions for the warfighter,” the DOD release said.

His visit is a continuation of the department’s attempt to repair relations with Silicon Valley, which sees the Pentagon’s slow bureaucratic way of doing business as the antithesis of the fast-pace start-up culture. “For those interested in foreign policy and national security, there are lots of interesting challenges and problems to work on,” Carter said. “And that’s also true for those interested in technology. Many companies don’t want to do business with the Pentagon’s bureaucracy, and the DIUx is in part an effort to make it easier for those companies to work with the military.

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