Technology transfer is key for federal defense agencies to maintain a competitive advantage in an increasingly uncertain threatscape.
Between persistent cyberattacks looking to dismantle critical infrastructure and increasing geopolitical tensions with near-peer competitors like China and Russia, the Department of Defense faces an evolving and unpredictable threat landscape.
Technology transfer is the critical link that takes innovative technology and implements it for effective use by those on the front lines. While there are many new tools and capabilities coming out of the R&D sector, making successful use of promising innovations is no easy task.
“The demands on technology transfer are rising,” says Petros Mouchtaris, president of Peraton Labs, the pioneering applied research group of Peraton. “Federal defense agencies need to ensure the best new technologies get into the hands of warfighters rapidly, work in complex mission environments, and solve difficult problems.”
Oftentimes, agencies turn to trusted industry partners to support tech transfer and help the DoD leverage more advanced commercial technologies — an effort that, Mouchtaris states, will prove key to the country maintaining competitive advantage.
“Fast and effective tech transfer is very important because there is a proliferation of valuable technologies, especially from the commercial front,” he explains. “Our adversaries continue to innovate as well, so we need to be faster and better at harnessing innovation across industry, government, and academia to stay ahead.”
Understand the Challenges
Although the concept behind tech transfer is relatively straightforward, getting brand-new technology into functional use is no easy feat, especially considering, as Mouchtaris notes, “there is not a simple cookie-cutter process that you can follow.”
Tech transfer has long been an objective and focus of the federal government and there are a number of contracting and partnering approaches aimed at promoting this process. Nonetheless, it is inherently challenging to introduce new advances into mission-critical operations – upgrading systems, replacing equipment, and re-engineering workflows are naturally disruptive.
“Sometimes, when there is an exciting innovation that involves drastic change, it may not fit the schedule of an acquisition, which would lead to unacceptable delays,” says Mouchtaris.
Lengthy time frames for technology transfer also lead to loss of momentum — something that is only exacerbated by the current talent gap and high turnover rates in the government.
“It’s often said that technology transfer is a contact sport,” Mouchtaris adds. “As individuals rotate positions, you can lose a key champion of the technology, causing loss of focus and further delay.”
Develop Strong Partnerships
The best way to maintain momentum and position for success is for agencies and their partners to collaborate from the start.
“As developers build the new technology, they get continuous feedback from the agency on the requirements and the environment in which it must operate,” Mouchtaris explains. “The defense teams can see and influence the solution as it matures, so once the technology is finished, they are prepared to take it over and get it out to users’ hands.”
Mouchtaris and his team at Peraton Labs have a storied 40-year history of creating a range of pivotal commercial technology, including the MIME protocol, which enabled email attachments, and the world’s first blockchain.
“We have a very long tradition of developing new technologies, getting them out to users, and building high-value solutions and products,” he says. “We leverage all of that experience today as we work on tech transfer opportunities with federal agencies.”
So far, they have seen a great deal of success in their efforts and are helping the military innovate in some of its most essential areas:
Deploying commercial wireless technologies in the military environment.
Peraton Labs is taking commercial off-the-shelf technology, such as 4G, 5G and Wi-Fi, and adding capabilities to address government-specific environments, enabling soldiers to communicate classified information on the battlefield and test planes to send data to the ground over those technologies.
Bolstering national cybersecurity.
Through its Bus Defender solution, Peraton has helped the Army, Air Force and Navy protect military platforms like F-16 and F-18 aircraft, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and autonomous vehicles from cyberthreats and supply chain attacks.
Safeguarding critical infrastructure.
Mouchtaris’s team has used funding from the Department of Energy, DARPA, and internal investments to develop EnergyDefender technology that specifically protects the power grid from cyberattacks.
While these successes have helped agencies within DoD solve some of their most complex challenges, the most important lessons Mouchtaris’s experience have taught him are to keep it simple, incremental, and extensible.
“Sometimes innovators, myself included, get overly excited about new advancements and want to fully explore the possibilities and include a lot of bells and whistles,” he says. “That in itself complicates transition, increasing the risks and creating more difficulty for downstream users to adopt the technology.”
Mouchtaris tells his team to stay focused on the customer’s largest problems and create a simple prototype that solves the key issue. With that solid foundation established, they can then build enhancements as necessary.
“We believe in creating a simple prototype first, engaging with the customer early on as we’re developing it, and then doing incremental enhancements,” he says.
Using an agile or incremental approach provides significant advantages in terms of speed, flexibility, and adapting to change.
Mouchtaris also emphasized the importance of extensibility – employing industry standards, modular architectures, and standard interfaces from the onset to build in the ability to grow and evolve.
Starting simple, advancing incrementally, and using extensible frameworks is a winning recipe for rapid deployment of new technologies.
Work Toward Accelerating Innovation
Tech transfer is the crucial bridge from technological advancements to effective solutions that outpace adversaries and out-maneuver threats.
“Threats evolve continuously, which means there’s a continuous need to deploy new capabilities in the federal environment to counter them,” he says. “Leveraging technologies coming from the commercial space and putting them into the DoD environment in a much more productive way — that’s what we work very hard on every day. Accelerating innovation to deliver sustained advantage at a very fast pace.”