Emerging technologies cell in Rapid Capabilities Office accelerates disruptive innovation while providing a reality check.
by Ms. Nancy Jones-Bonbrest
An ombudsman is a representative, an advocate who aims for balance—between the readers of a newspaper and its writers, for example, or between the consumers of a product and its provider.
In the case of the Army’s Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), the ombudsman is its Emerging Technologies Office (ETO), a dedicated cell set up to elicit ideas from, and deliver clear expectations to, members of industry and academia with innovations to offer. Since the launch of the RCO in August 2016, the office has spearheaded direct and continuous engagement with the commercial sector. This includes the Army’s longtime partners in the defense industry as well as the small startups and academic organizations that are often on the leading edge of technology.
Without a doubt, the RCO set out to do things differently. The office is small and stealthy, shedding traditional bureaucracy in an effort to get critical strategic capabilities out the door faster than traditional acquisition methods allow. There is a short chain of command to keep the office agile and able to tailor acquisition, operational assessment, contracting and other functions to shorten the delivery cycle.
This fast-moving approach requires a balancing function, a neutral, impartial look at the new and emerging technology that comes into the RCO. With the ETO in the mix, the RCO has an ombudsman both to scout far and wide for disruptive technology solutions and to filter them down realistically to address specific operational needs.
Implementing this vision is Rob Monto, director of the ETO. He brings an engineering background, friendly demeanor and deep knowledge of the tech sector to his role as an honest broker of technologies. In a discussion on Jan. 8, Monto provided his perspective on what lies ahead for the office and the RCO as they continue to evolve.
Would you explain the thinking behind the ETO and how it fits into the RCO?
The RCO charter specifically calls for the ETO to be an ombudsman: to fairly and honestly assess what different types of technologies could help provide overmatch or disruptive capabilities for the Army. The Army wanted to have a dedicated cell to constantly interact, put the problems on the table and be honest with everyone in determining if an emerging technology fits the immediate need. We are focused on placing small bets in a bunch of different areas. And that’s exactly what we are doing right now with electronic warfare, artificial intelligence [AI] and alternative position, navigation and timing [PNT].
Of course, this is just a start. Programs of record [PORs] are going down their path on what they need to do to support their requirements for fielding the entire Army with approved capabilities. At the same time, we are accelerating prototypes that help inform these PORs and will be in the hands of units overseas in Europe, and eventually Korea, much faster. We realize the speed of technology and that it demands we go faster. As a small office, we can do risk reduction for the PORs through prototyping and experimentation to see what is possible, while also fielding 80 percent solutions in limited amounts to get real capabilities into the hands of the Soldiers today.
What is the ETO doing to help find electronic warfare, AI and PNT capabilities?
We are moving forward this year with a series of “burn-off” events and challenges that really target this next step in the discovery and prototype process. Industry, academia and the S&T [science and technology] community deliver white papers to us on promising technology. They have great ideas. The next step is finding out if [an idea] is really tangible. If so, then we want to try and demonstrate it and see how well it works. That’s where the ombudsman comes in: We create a very low barrier to entry.
With burn-offs, we’re not doing formal “tests” of anything, but we do want to provide the participants with feedback, because that’s a business decision for them to invest their time and resources. We want to provide them something tangible, so even if their solution doesn’t fit our needs, they can walk away saying that the Army RCO was interested in this capability and they got this assessment out of it. While it may not support a specific requirement today, maybe they could go for internal research and development dollars to enhance it. Or go to a science and technology organization and say they demonstrated it in this environment, it performed this and the Army RCO—or even Soldiers using the technology—gave this feedback. It’s that going back and forth to really hit at technology acceleration that the Army is looking for.
Without ETO, we’d be doing things the way we’ve always done. ETO gives the organization the flexibility to reach out and shape the solution collaboratively, versus having a predefined requirement from the start. Working as a team with anyone who has a possible solution, we start with the problem that will then lead us to the answer. The ombudsman is there to put pressure on folks to bring the right solution to meet a pressing problem. We’re the gatekeeper … we need to do it quickly, rapidly. It might be a very promising technology, but if it’s not mature yet we have to move on. It doesn’t mean we lose sight of that technology forever, it’s just not the right solution for the problem we have in front of us at the time.
You also worked with the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) on an event called ThunderDrone late last year. What was the focus of ThunderDrone, and what’s next?
ThunderDrone took place at SOCOM’s SOFWERX facility in Florida. It was an event using prototyping and demonstrations to help better understand the potential and limitations of drones, robotics and artificial intelligence. This year, they are following it up with Game of Drones, their second rapid prototyping event, focusing on counter-small unmanned aircraft systems. The Army, along with the other services, will participate. ThunderDrone, Game of Drones, rapid experimentation—that’s what builds excitement and collaboration. It brings in industry, startup tech companies and others that normally don’t talk to each other or were never introduced before, and who might not normally participate in a military tech event, and it levels the playing field for everybody.
But it’s also a different way of thinking. SOCOM breaks down the problem and then brings in a whole bunch of folks to see how they can tackle it. Initially, they truly don’t think about the materiel solutions. Instead, SOCOM farms it out to see what the best of breed is. And they iterate and iterate and iterate—and as things spiral out of it, they have a 40 percent solution, then a 50 percent solution, then a 60 percent solution. They continue to spiral it out, and they are willing to take the risk of not having the 100 percent solution from the beginning.
What else are you doing to get industry—both traditional defense contractors and others—into the mix?
We hosted several “open door” technology exchange events at venues such as AUSA [Association of the United States Army] Global Force in Huntsville, Alabama, AFCEA’s TechNet in Augusta, Georgia, and AUSA Annual in Washington, D.C. We did this to really be out and about where industry is already going to be and where they are already collaborating with each other. Again, it’s a very low barrier to entry and was offered on a first-come, first-served basis at minimal cost to us and industry because they are already attending these events. So we piggybacked onto these events to lay out our capability gaps and problems, and see what comes to the surface when you stir the water.
Any success stories?
Absolutely. The first is alternative PNT, or PNT solutions, without the aid of GPS. We saw through our open-door sessions and white paper solicitations that there were a whole host of capabilities that are truly novel approaches, that really pushed us to say, hey, let’s take it to the next level and see this in action. And that’s what led to the burn-off events. The other success story is AI for electronic warfare. We thought that this would be a long-term type of action for the RCO, but after discussing some of the capabilities at one of our open-door sessions, we’re pushing hard to integrate it to support requirements for deployed forces. We believe we can bring AI in and it will begin to help reduce the cognitive burden and workload on electronic warfare officers.
Other efforts we’re looking at now are long-range fires and loitering space munitions. Loitering munitions are similar to UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles], but are also munitions that can loiter in a space until a target is identified. Loitering munitions are already on station and can attack without calling in an airstrike or forces.
This all happened by chance. We were having discussions about other technical areas and this came up, and we brought it back to RCO leadership, who wanted to explore it more. That’s one of the benefits of having us out there: You can identify solutions you didn’t think were on the front burner and were still several years away. Truly, this is what the ETO is meant to do.
If an industry partner has an idea they want to share with the ETO, where do they start?
We encourage everyone to visit our website (http://rapidcapabilitiesoffice.army.mil/eto/) or LinkedIn page (https://www.linkedin.com/company/us-army-RCO). We use both of these sites for outreach and are continually updating them with any current events, upcoming efforts, RFIs [requests for information] and more. In addition, we are part of SOCOM’s tech scouting database Vulcan. This enables any company with access to submit commercial technology. The database is not just sorted into an RCO category, or SOCOM entries, but instead the technology is shared so any government organization looking for technology for, say, PNT, can search it and see what pops up. It is meant to be collaborative and to break down silos. The link to our submission into Vulcan is through our website, on the ETO page, by clicking on Submit a Technology.
It is evolving and will continue to evolve. I see it as a living organization that will continue to meet whatever the needs of the RCO and Army are. It’s already evolved from the days of just being an ombudsman, being that filter, to now doing these small bets in different areas, trying to test drive capabilities and really putting ourselves out there. We are always looking at what the next big focus might be for the Army. It can change rapidly. For example, we could begin looking at capabilities to support megacity operations. With these operations, you have to think about it differently, thinking about how you use PNT while on a clearing mission of a 100-story building versus a movement and maneuver in an open space; being able to communicate with folks in subway tunnels or wherever it might be. It’s much harder to communicate through traditional means [in these situations], and we are looking at how we can deliver prototypes to deployed forces in these areas more rapidly.
Any set goals for the next 12-15 months?
By the end of the year, I would like to see a clear transition path for whatever comes out of those small bets we’re placing. I really, truly believe there are capabilities out there today that could help provide enhanced function to either electronic warfare or PNT in helping achieve a rapid capability to support deployed forces. And we are starting to see some of those transition paths build now. Already, in just a few short months, the RCO fielded initial mounted and dismounted electronic warfare prototypes to forces in Europe that are helping them detect and understand enemy activity in the electromagnetic spectrum. We’ll continue along this path by upgrading those prototypes based on user feedback, while also focusing on what’s next. What capability gap will combatant commanders come to us with next, and how can we move quickly enough so that we are not caught without a rapid solution?
NANCY JONES-BONBREST is a staff writer for Data Systems Analysts Inc., providing contract support to the Army Rapid Capabilities Office. She holds a B.S. in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park. She has covered Army modernization for several years, including multiple training and testing events.
This article is published in the April – June 2018 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
Subscribe to Army AL&T News, the premier online news source for the Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology (AL&T) Workforce.