Blog: Research and Development Hits the Field

October 20, 2009
By Maryann Lawlor
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The final session at MILCOM 2009 today focused on the science and technology of communications and networking for current operations. Dr. Cynthia Dion-Schwarz of the U.S. Defense Department's Defense Research and Engineering (DDR&E) organization led panel members in a discussion that centered on existing capabilities as well as those that are on the not-too-distant horizon. Dion-Schwarz pointed out that many of the technologies currently in use on the battlefield began as research and development programs that seemed incredible when they began. These include the Global Positioning System, night-vision devices and networks. Additional capabilities also are ready for prime time in the field, but they await final accreditation and certification, she said. Despite these accomplishments, Dion-Schwarz noted that several challenges exist today in the theaters of operation that must be solved--and the sooner the better. These include network operations, persistent and robust beyond line-of-sight (BLOS) communications, tactical communications to the edge and interoperability among systems, especially in Afghanistan. To its credit, the Defense Department was able to address the BLOS issue to some degree by using the Iridium satellite constellation in a new way. The DDR&E employed the existing constellation and turned it into a BLOS tactical voice and data network by bouncing signals off the satellites to form the network. The "secret sauce" is in the gateway, and the solution now can provide up to 100 nautical miles of BLOS voice and data networking and is a completely unique capability. This is not an end-state solution, Dion-Schwarz pointed out, but fills a need until the Mobile User Objective System is fielded. Dr. Peter Camara of ViaSat Incorporated described how getting new technologies into programs of record can be like pushing a wet noodle. It requires much coordination and collaboration to get it into the field because there are more people who can say "no" to a technology than can say "yes." This is primarily because new capabilities must pass a number of information assurance milestones as well as other criteria. Camara noted that the typical acquisition process today first involves either identifying a new requirement or the need to fix problems of an existing system. Although several major impediments can stand in the way of capabilities moving into the field, these can be addressed readily if users and technologists express the need for a capability in terms of the benefits early in the process. Kim Watkins, DISA, shared information about capabilities that have been fielded as the result of building on current capabilities. One success story is the UHF SATCOM Integrated Waveform. Work to increase bandwidth capacity that began approximately seven years ago has resulted in nearly quadrupling bandwidth capacity today. This was achieved at a cost of approximately of $67 million; if a new system had been developed to provide the same results, Watkins says it would have cost upwards of $500 million. Members of the audience brought up some interesting points during the Q&A section of the panel. One small business owner asked how small companies can get their solutions into programs of record. Panelists agreed that it isn't an easy process but suggested that small businesses team with larger companies to get their foot in the door. Watkins pointed out that DISA is interested in innovative technologies and would be willing to hear ideas or see prototypes to consider for additional research. Another audience member pointed out that government agencies often are not willing to pay for the intellectual property (IP) rights as part of a purchase from a company, but they are very willing to demand the IP rights when a solution is turned over to them. Panelists agreed that this is the case and is an issue that needs to be addressed.

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