Pentagon technology hub sees lower transition rate, higher value deals

Pentagon technology hub sees lower transition rate, higher value deals

The Defense Innovation Unit transitioned 10 projects from commercial prototypes to military capabilities in fiscal 2023 — down from 17 the prior year and led by drones and autonomous technology projects, according to its annual report.

The Pentagon technology hub said in the May 2 report that a smaller transition number doesn’t necessarily equal a lessened impact. In fact, one of the efforts — the Small-Class Unmanned Underwater Vehicle — led to a contract worth up to $350 million, which is the largest DIU-enabled award since its inception in 2015.

“The number of transitions per fiscal year depends on multiple factors, including how long it takes to prototype a solution and what the result of prototyping activities are and whether a DOD/U.S. government partners is ready and has funds to purchase a solution,” the organization said.

Along with the underwater drone, projects transitioned last year include three other autonomy-related efforts. Two of those projects were for small drones qualified through DIU’s Blue UAS program and purchased by the U.S. military services. The other was for an effort known as Collaborative Tactical Autonomy for Networked Aircraft, a partnership with the Air Force focused on providing algorithms that can command large numbers of airborne weapons and sensors.

DIU also transitioned two cyber projects — both focused on threat monitoring — and two aimed at improving air logistics and defense through AI and machine learning. A final space-oriented effort provided U.S. Special Operations Command with advanced tactical communications support.

DIU was created to push these types of technologies to the services, and over the last 9 years has demonstrated a proven process for doing so. The organization is now preparing to take on a greater role in helping the military field those capabilities in larger numbers.

In a letter introducing the report, Beck wrote that as DIU moves into 2024, its focus is not only on the number of projects it transitions, but on the impact those projects have on the most urgent strategic needs within the department.

“We find ourselves at a tipping point,” he said. “The Department of Defense (DOD), Congress, the interagency, and the commercial sector all recognize that the time to accelerate the application of commercial technology for strategic impact is upon us.”

To position itself for that growing role, the organization has made several organizational shifts to better engage with the users and buyers throughout DOD. It built out its network of embedded personnel that extends across combatant commands. It also established liaisons within the military services’ innovation organizations, known as the Defense Department’s Innovation Community of Entities, or DICE.

“By simultaneously leading a consortium of representatives from across the DICE, allies and academia, DIU is able to cull the innovation landscape for readily available technology solutions,” the agency said.

In light of the organization’s increased influence, DIU Director Doug Beck now reports directly to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. He also sits on the Deputy’s Innovation Steering Group, which oversees DOD efforts to rapidly field technology to address high-need operational problems.

Beck also chairs a separate Defense Innovation Working Group and DIU is playing a key role in Replicator an effort to field thousands of drones in two years and develop a process for quickly delivering capabilities to military users.

Along with increasing its presence in and support to DOD organizations, DIU is deepening partnerships with other countries. In 2023, it forged agreements with India, Singapore, Japan and Ukraine as well as with NATO and AUKUS partners.

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.

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