WASHINGTON — The Defense Innovation Unit more than doubled the number of programs it transitioned from commercial prototypes to military capabilities in fiscal 2022, pushing 17 technologies in a banner year for the organization, according to its annual report.
These include a highly maneuverable drone to support Army ISR missions and an Air Force pilot training program that incorporates commercial gaming technology, representing about $1.3 billion in follow-on contract awards to companies that haven’t traditionally worked with the Department of Defense. That transition total is up from eight transitions in fiscal 2021.
“This momentum in production contracts is accelerating, with ceiling totals and averages growing substantially year-over-year,” DIU said in the report, released Jan. 25. “With appropriate resourcing for DIU, we anticipate both the total transitions and contract ceilings to grow, signaling increased adoption, revenue and scale for vendors across the nation.”
The organization was created in 2015 to push commercial technology into the department and help companies navigate the bureaucracy of defense acquisition. Since then, DIU has awarded 360 prototype deals and transitioned 52 capabilities with a follow-on contract value of $4.9 billion. Those 52 projects leveraged $18.6 billion in private investment, according to the report.
Lawmakers have largely backed the organization, but DIU officials — including former director Mike Brown, who resigned last April — have reported a lack of support from senior leaders in the Pentagon and have called for a larger share of the department’s annual budget.
DIU funds its efforts through partnerships with defense agencies and through annual appropriations. Congress allotted $111 million for the organization in fiscal 2023, about $45 million more than what DoD requested.
In an introduction to the report, DIU touts its increasing relevance as dual-use technology — or capabilities that have both commercial and defense applications — plays a greater role in modern warfare. The trend is exemplified in Ukraine’s use of commercial satellite imagery and uncrewed systems in its resistance to Russia’s invasion and, DIU says, the U.S. has an imperative to adopt and integrate more commercial technology.
“To gain and maintain operational advantage over competitors, the DoD requires an order of magnitude increase in its adoption of commercial technologies,” the report states. “To this end, DoD must act as a fast follower.”
The projects that transitioned into follow-on or production efforts in fiscal 2022 include five cyber efforts, four artificial intelligence initiatives, two autonomy programs, three space efforts and three human systems projects.
In the area of cybersecurity, DIU supported several efforts to better locate software vulnerabilities or malicious activities in systems. One program, called Hunt Forward, gives the Cyber National Mission Forces a portable system built by Maryland-based Sealing Technologies to detect, report and address hardware and software threats. DIU also partnered with Google on the Secure Cloud Management effort, which provides a gateway to control access to cloud applications based on the department’s zero-trust guidelines.
Key autonomy programs include the Short-Range Reconnaissance program, which leverages Skydio’s X2D drone to fly Army ISR missions. DIU also worked with autonomous surface vehicle provider Saildrone to field a system to collect “critical data” in the maritime domain. The organization transitioned the capability in September for use by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, the Navy, the Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
To support U.S. Cyber Command’s AI and machine learning needs, DIU worked with New York-based software company Accrete Inc., to field an automated system to scour open-source intelligence and process large volumes of data. The effort allows CYBERCOM to more quickly locate foreign adversary investments.
DIU also transitioned two peacetime indication and warning programs from its space portfolio in fiscal 2022. The systems, which leveraged technology from Capella Space and Orbital Insight, provide remote-sensing and exploitation capabilities from small commercial satellites to users in the Air Force and other DoD agencies.
In its human systems portfolio, DIU fielded two Air Force pilot training systems that leverage gaming and cloud services.
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.