Army Applications Lab looks for nontraditional problem solvers
- By Lauren C. Williams
- Dec 16, 2019
NOTE: This article first appeared on FCW.com.
For the last two years, the Army has put full focus on reorganizing itself to modernize its systems and capabilities faster. Army Futures Command, which stood up in 2018, has taken the lead and even fashioned its own innovation arm to help seek, match and implement commercial solutions to warfighter problems. The Army Applications Laboratory aims to connect nontraditional commercial solvers – entrepreneurs, startups, university researchers -- with the Army to close capability gaps and speed modernization.
FCW chatted with Porter Orr, director of the capabilities accelerator team with Lab, to get a better understanding of what the Army's version of the Pentagon's innovative acquisition arm, the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), has been up to.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
FCW: What have you been working on this last year and what's on the horizon for the next six to 18 months in terms of the problems that you're solving?
Orr: The first thing to understand from the Lab's perspective is that really we've just stood up --we're brand new, we're less than a year old. A lot of what we've accomplished that we're proud of is understanding exactly how we see the Lab moving forward. What's our strategy, how are we going to bring value to the Army as well as value to the commercial sector potentially that we're trying to partner with. :So we're pretty proud of building a culture and a cohesive team structure and the strategy moving forward to provide value to the modernization efforts that Army Futures Command and the Army are trying to go after.
More tactically speaking, we've funded multiple different small companies from across the country on either proof of concepts or different pilot type events, spread across technology areas based in artificial intelligence or data science as well as robotics. We have some that deal with autonomy.
Our most exciting thing that we've been setting up for the past six months, but we're going to start hitting the full gas on in January 2020, is what we call our field artillery autonomous resupply cohort. That would be a three-month, hands-on experience where we bring in companies that have truly novel solutions and technology that can help us solve a very complex problem. The concept is that we help them understand what the Army is looking for, connect them with the actual end user, the soldier in the field, give them context of the problem. Then they can go and work out how they can potentially solve that problem with their commercial dual-use technology.
And then moving forward, some of the other projects that we're looking at are, continuing clearly at the technology level, what is going to bring value to the Army to modernize and what commercial technology aligns to that. So again, looking at things like autonomy and robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, internet of things, a lot of augmented reality, virtual reality, potential solutions that just really span the gamut.
The technology is the technology. We're looking at the technology that's cross-cutting to help the Army out in multiple different efforts.
FCW: What sort of problems are you looking to solve with AI and ML?
Orr: Those are incredibly broad cross-cutting technologies, right? I think what's fundamentally important and what's different about the Lab is that we're not trying to just find great technology and find a use case for it. Our approach is actually the complete opposite of that.
For about 80% of the time, what we're trying to do is find solutions to problems. Those problems come from the Army and the Army Futures Command. They are very crystal clear about what the priorities are, and we're in direct alignment with that. Our small part to play is to understand what potential commercial technology can enable those modernization efforts to move faster and more capably and then potentially at a better value because they've already been developed. We can reduce costs in terms of research and development expense as well as potential ongoing sustainment expense.
Now 20% of the time, we are looking for disruptive technology. We know that obviously technology needs to incubate -- and we may not always understand exactly what use case it might end up being used for -- but we might have a vague, general understanding and think it's potentially transformative. So we sponsor that work just to see if we can create a little bit more traction on how it could go after a specific use case that then could empower a modernization priority in the future.
FCW: Do you have an example of that? The Army must have thousands upon thousands of problems that need solutions. How do you even go about narrowing that and then also seeing if you can get a use case?
Orr: That's going to be a long answer. An example is this field artillery autonomous resupply cohort that we're doing started months ago. We went to the long range precision fires cross-functional team and asked about their problems. And that was just a very candid, iterative conversation. Quite honestly, it took a little while to understand that they did have a fundamental problem about resupplying their future artillery piece. They wanted to be able to do that autonomously in order to save soldiers' lives in battle.
Now, that use case, the problem sourcing came directly from the priority of the cross-functional team. We then looked at the use case and saw a lot of potential overlap in the commercial market. When you look at autonomy, supply chain and logistics, there's a lot of commercial companies trying to solve this. Yes, the military use case is a little bit different -- it's an open ground, it's a little bit more extreme -- however, there are certain subsets of that solution that we might be able to solve with multiple different types of cross-cutting technology.
The next step was to try to get to these companies that have potential solutions to this problem and have them understand the problem and give them context about what the problem is, let them meet the soldier in person and then have them propose how their technology could solve this small subset of this challenge.
So we went on a five-city road show. We started in Austin, we went to New York, Boston, Silicon Valley, Pittsburgh. We went out there and we talked to solvers directly; we proactively reached out to solvers that wouldn't necessarily always think about working with the military. And again, to be clear, this technology could be autonomy. It could be robotics, it could be algorithms, it could be sensors, it can be a lot of different cross-cutting technologies. We did this five-city road show. We had three online webinars. We had a very proactive social media platform push to attract interest in what we're trying to talk about, to get understanding about the problem. And then we opened up an application period. Our goal was to have 40 submittals across the United States. We actually had 88.
FCW: How do you make sure that you're not stepping on the toes of other Army components like the research and development, science and technology (S&T) side or even DIU? How do you operationally make sure that you aren't working on the same problem as another part of the Army or DOD?
Orr: So baked into our ethos here at the lab is that we don't build things in a bubble. We want to build great products for the Army, and we know that great products are built by a multitude of stakeholders that have invested interest up and down the chain of the Army. So whether you're a scientist or engineer from our S&T labs, whether you're a program manager, whether you're a soldier in the field -- if you have a particular interest in what we're trying to build, we want you in that conversation at the beginning. We're not really interested in building things in our own little bubble and then saying, "Hey, look at how cool this is." If people aren't invested in what we're trying to do, we don't want to do it because we're limited in resources, and the resource that we're primary constrained with is time. We have problems getting cool stuff into the hands of soldiers that's applicable and useful.
The beauty of Army Futures Command is our ability to reach a massive portion of all of those stakeholders under one roof and one four-star general. We can reach deep into the Army and get the expertise and the viewpoints from stakeholders that need to be invested in these projects.
FCW: How do you not overstep your bounds?
Orr: We're talking to them. That's why one of the main reasons we're here in the Capital Factory [in Austin]. We have open lines of communication with DIU, with NavalX and a lot of others. If there's a use case or a project that we think is potentially applicable and cross-cutting, we absolutely talk to them.
Now when you look at field artillery autonomous resupply, there's also been work done in the Marine Corps that's highly applicable. So we reached out to them. There is no systematic process, honestly, right now. It's very grassroots and we're looking to build and exercise those muscles across the DOD innovation space proactively. I think we have a little ways to go, but I'm excited about the progress that we've made so far.
FCW: DOD leaders talk about the need for changing the culture to accept more risk and to accept failure as a part of growth and progress. And so because the lab is brand new, what the failures have you seen and how have you been able to learn from them?
Orr: You know, it's funny. I'm not a government employee by trade; I come from commercial innovation. So where I come from, failures aren't failures; they're just a different way to look at how you can get to where you're trying to go. So I guess it depends on how you define failure. If what you mean is did we pursue a project that didn't end up delivering exactly what we were looking for? Yes, absolutely.
FCW: Yes. And then what did you learn?
Orr: Unfortunately the primary one I'm thinking about I can't talk about the exact impacts, but what's important to understand is the reason that it didn't progress forward was twofold. The first was we didn't, as the Army, understand exactly what we wanted. We knew we had a problem, and we didn't know exactly what the solution is. This is why I don't think it's a failure because at the end, we had a demonstrable product that we could bring to stakeholders.
It wasn't exactly what they wanted, but this is why it's not a failure. They said, "Wow, that key part of that capability is really interesting." And then because of that, they built out an entirely different program. They didn't realize that it was even a problem until they saw [how] this approach could solve that.
Now, our project didn't continue. [But] whether the project continued or not, you can't fault the Army for not knowing exactly what it wants. It's a mentality shift. We don't know what we want. We don't know what the solution is. We know what the problem is. Let's figure out what the solution might look like iteratively. So that's what we did.
FCW: What's the second part?
Orr: The other part is understanding the incentives behind a solver. And this is part of the growing pains, understanding the vested incentive structures of these technology companies, if they're not a public-facing company or large scale. Are they entrepreneurs? Are they venture-capital backed? What does that mean? How do you reach out to these teams? How fast do they need capital? What are the incentives behind them, and how do you understand that ecosystem so you can become a viable business partner?
Because what we don't want them to fill up their capability and resources to the point where if the Army comes knocking on the door, they can't help us. Everybody's constrained by time and resources and capital. We want to make sure that we are knocking on the door at the right time to get the right technology. In order to do that, we have to understand where they're coming from and what the context of the ecosystem is. And that has to be authentic. So those were the two lessons we learned from that "failure."
Lauren C. Williams is senior editor for FCW and Defense Systems, covering defense and cybersecurity.
Prior to joining FCW, Williams was the tech reporter for ThinkProgress, where she covered everything from internet culture to national security issues. In past positions, Williams covered health care, politics and crime for various publications, including The Seattle Times.
Williams graduated with a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park and a bachelor's in dietetics from the University of Delaware. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter @lalaurenista.
Click here for previous articles by Wiliams.