WASHINGTON – The Pentagon's Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental (DIUx) ended the fiscal year by awarding 12 contracts, for a total of $36.3 million.
The 12 contracts represent the total given out by the Silicon Valley-based DIUx over the course of a year that saw the group rebooted under new director Raj Shah and expanded to outposts in Boston, Massachusetts, and Austin, Texas.
DIUx, which is charged with creating outreach from the Pentagon to the commercial technology sector, accounted for $8.3 million of the funding, with the rest coming from different branches of the DoD. On average, the group awarded contracts in just under 60 days from first pitch.
Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that there were $65 million in DIUx contracts under work. A spokeswoman for DIUx said the group is confident its "healthy pipeline" of programs will "at least reach what the Secretary announced," but could not say when those agreements would go formally on contract.
Carter first announced the creation of DIUx in mid-2015, with the doors opening in the fall of that year. But following a slow start and complaints that the program was not connecting with the commercial industry, DIUx was "rebooted" in May of this year, with new leadership and an expansion.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Shah called the last few months a "fast paced sprint" and indicated his team is trying to catch its breath and assess how the first wave of deals has worked.
The fact DIUx is providing some of its own funds for these contracts is "critical," Shah acknowledged.
William Roper, the head of the Strategic Capabilities Office, told reporters last month that a key part of how his office has built trust with the services is by helping to fund the programs with the SCO's own pot of money. Shah said he "wholeheartedly" agrees that is a vital trust building measure, adding that co-investment is "absolutely central to our ability to achieve the mission."
"Having our ability to use some of our funds in conjunction with the services is important for a couple of reasons. It helps us buy down the risk when working with a nontraditional company [the services] may have not worked with before," Shah explained. "There are cases where we scope out a project, we know the full order of magnitude of the resources required, so we can front some of that while our partners work through their processes [and] they can cover more of the back-end."
Shah also said he was "quite optimistic" about the future of the organization once Carter has departed, saying he believes "the subsequent secretary and the subsequent secretary after that will see the value of this engagement, and will be pleased to have DIUx in his or her quiver of tools to achieve their mission and goals."
So, what is DIUx spending its money on? It’s a mix of multimillion-dollar contracts and small dollar figures – half the contracts are for less than $1 million.
According to the organization, the contracts break down like this:
- Endpoint Querying Solution ($12.7M). Customer: DoD CIO/Army. Company: Tanium (Emeryville, CA). DIUx is working with Tanium to provide "near real-time visibility and control of network endpoints" in order to provide cyber defense operators the ability to react more quickly to threats as they pop up.
- High Speed Drone Aircraft ($12.6M). Customer: STRATCOM and Strategic Capabilities Office. Company: Composite Engineering (Roseville, CA)/Kratos (San Diego, CA) and three other companies. A major focus for the Pentagon is the "loyal wingman" concept, where autonomous or semi-autonomous systems would work with fighters like the F-35. To make that work, the Pentagon needs to test capabilities on a high-speed drone test bed. DIUx is working with commercial drone vendors to use such a system for tests.
- Game Theoretic Sandbox ($5.8M). Customer: DoD CIO. Company: Improbable (London, UK). DoD relies on traditional war games to map out scenarios that could come into play. This contract looks at commercial technologies and data applications to build a simulation sandbox for real-world modeling and planning. Shah said the goal is to develop "finely detailed recreations of real world events."
- Unmanned Maritime Surface Vehicle ($1.5M). Customer: DoD. Company: Saildrone (Alameda, CA). This contract is playing with wind-powered autonomous sailing platforms that can operate on the surface of the water to "provide persistent maritime surveillance and reconnaissance for the Navy, and navigate the ocean autonomously without the need for manned crews and human pilots," according to the DIUx release.
- Autonomous Indoor Tactical Drone ($1M). Customer: DoD. Company: Shield AI (San Diego, CA/Boston, MA). DIUx is investing in small tactical handheld quadcopters that forces moving in tight quarters can deploy for reconnaissance. These quadcopters are designed specifically to fly indoors and can "autonomously speed through built and natural structures, mapping out their interiors and identifying threats without the need for a human pilot or a global positioning system (GPS)."
- Knowledge Management ($500K). Customer: DoD. Company: Zeuss (San Francisco, CA). DIUx is working with this Silicon Valley startup’s knowledge-management and enterprise-search platform, which "aggregates communications and disparate data from across the organization, illuminates key relationships and allows people to find what they are looking for by presenting data in a way that people natively understand it." The goal is to help stop brain-drain from occurring given the persistent turnover at the Pentagon.
- Network Change Detection and Processing ($500K). Customer: DISA. Company: Qadium (San Francisco, CA). Qadium "continually indexes all devices connected to the public Internet, enabling organizations to understand their networks and how they relate to the broader world." That technology could allow DoD to detect potential vulnerabilities and backdoors to its security systems.
- Problem Curation, Translation, and Research ($500K). Customer: DIUx and DIA. Company: BMNT Partners (HQ in Palo Alto and an office in LA). DIUx is hoping this system can "refine and validate problems before engaging the traditional acquisition process." It could end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy – if the system works out, DIUx hopes it could make it easier for non-traditional companies to get into the defense acquisition process.
- Endpoint Security ($400K). Customer: DOD. Company: Bromium (Cupertino, CA). Bromium’s technology uses works to isolate unauthorized actions as they occur, before they can potentially corrupt or damage a vital system. Sherban Naum, regional vice president for Bromium Federal, was a vocal supporter of the DIUx idea back in March.
- Automated Textual Analysis and Content Curation ($400K). Customer: Army, SOCOM. Company: Quid (San Francisco, CA). Social media analysis has become vital for the Pentagon as it seeks to combat the Islamic State group. Quid provides an algorithmic approach to crunching vast amounts of information from social media, making it easier to map out the relationships from open-source data.
- Wireless, Hands-Free, Ears-Free, Communicator ($200K). Customer: Air National Guard. Company: Sonitus (San Mateo, California). Existing communications tools add weight to a warfighter and can restrict freedom of movement. So DIUx is working with Sonitus to adapt commercially available hands-free, ears-free, two-way removable communications devices. How does it work? They are placed in the mouth and "integrate wirelessly to radios and offer clear communications in high noise environments."
- Strength and Skill Training Enhancement ($153K). Customer: DoD. Company: Halo Neuroscience (San Francisco, CA). DIUx’s first contract awarded was for a head-worn stimulation system that looks like a pair of headphones. When used, it can theoretically increase the brain’s natural ability to adapt to training. Special operations forces will work with Halo to "assess the effects of this neurostimulation and evaluate improvements in tactical motor skills, such as marksmanship, close-quarters-combat, and overall strength training."
Future contracts could include work on micro satellites and further cyber protection.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.