The Rapid Innovation Fund enables the military and nontraditional contractors to work together.
by Kathryn Bailey
As DOD seeks to spur development of new technology, its Rapid Innovation Fund provides the financial backing for the military to work with nontraditional defense contractors to bring promising capabilities to fruition. Lt. Col. Brian Wong, chief of market research for the U.S. Army Network Cross-Functional Team (N-CFT), and Dr. Sayeed Hasan, chief engineer for Product Manager Waveforms, assigned to the U.S. Army Program Executive Office Command, Control and Communications – Tactical (PEO C3T), explained the process and preliminary outcome of their first Rapid Innovation Fund (RIF 2017) effort during a conversation conducted before the contract award.
The cross-functional team and PEO C3T are using DOD’s Rapid Innovation Fund, which is intended to rapidly prototype and experiment with novel ideas from industry, and then deliver those capabilities into the hands of Soldiers in fewer than 12 months. They are currently implementing four separate Rapid Innovation Fund efforts.
The fund is administered by the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering and the DOD Office of Small Business Programs to provide a program for nontraditional vendors to work with Army programs of record to rapidly insert their technologies into acquisition programs to meet specific defense needs.
PEO C3T and the cross-functional team recently culminated RIF 2017, where they teamed with the 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (1-504 PIR), 1st Brigade Combat Team, part of the 82nd Airborne Division, to assess several commercial waveforms as part of an automated failover primary, alternate, contingency and emergency plan for Soldiers (automated failover is the process of automatically moving an application to a standby server in the event of a system compromise). Wong provided oversight of the entire operation, while Hasan coordinated radio training and operations.
Kathryn Bailey: Please explain primary, alternate, contingency and emergency plans, and how commercial waveforms fit into the equation.
Lt. Col. Brian Wong: PACE [primary, alternate, contingency and emergency] plans are created to provide continuity of communications from user to user, or Soldier to Soldier. Commercial waveforms are a set of software instructions that dictate things such as wavelengths, encryption and rapid frequency changes. Even though the enemy can jam one or more of these waveforms, it would be nearly impossible to jam every single one. If we provide multiple wavelengths, or pathways, we can ensure redundant communications in congested or contested environments—both of which can degrade or deny Soldier communications. Automated failover is critical since most Soldiers are not trained to manipulate complex network configurations. When we provide automated failover PACE plans, we are seamlessly routing data to the unjammed wavelengths. Soldiers are unaware of what is happening in the background and are therefore able to concentrate on the mission.
Bailey: What is meant by nontraditional vendors?
Dr. Sayeed Hasan: Nontraditional vendors are those who may have mature, relevant technologies, but they have not typically been embedded in a program of record. They are just looking for an opportunity, and guidance, on how to introduce their technologies to the government. In this case, they had to explain to us how they would integrate their technologies into the tactical network. However; there is one caveat—the vendor’s capability must have been tested in a relevant environment. OSD makes occasional exceptions if the capability is deemed “game-changing” and if it meets other strict criteria. During the RIF effort we leveraged an OTA [other-transaction authority] process, which is tied to the RIF process, to award contracts for prototype capability and experimentation.
Bailey: How are PEO C3T and the Network Cross-Functional Team implementing the Rapid Innovation Fund process?
Wong: We began our RIF 2017 process in April 2018 by posting a request from the Network Cross-Functional Team for white papers on the National Spectrum Consortium site and FedBizOpps, where we solicited novel ideas from industry on how to automate PACE [primary, alternate, contingency and emergency] plans using commercial waveforms. We received a total of 30 whitepapers and selected the three we felt were most promising for PACE plans. In less than a month we solidified agreements, and then requested prototype equipment deliveries followed by Soldier experimentation.
It is also important to note that the Network Cross-Functional Team coordinates with FORSCOM [U.S. Army Forces Command] to source all maneuver unit experimentation.
Bailey: What did some of the initial experiments entail?
Hasan: We conducted three field-based risk reduction events, using one vendor capability at each event, in three separate states from the spring through the early fall of 2019. The first event took place in New York City, where we tested a new commercial waveform designed to act as a mobile ad-hoc network for situations where Soldiers’ missions take place in environments not conducive to signal transmission. What better place than New York, where we could test the waveforms on the subway, the midtown tunnel and among the skyscrapers?
We also travelled to Burneyville, Oklahoma, to assess network connectivity in dense foliage and then to Southern California, where we obtained an ad-hoc network using a commercial waveform to stream video and voice from the 15th floor of an L.A. [Los Angeles] building to its underground garage. We used the same waveform to travel across many kilometers of vegetation throughout areas of the Santa Monica Mountains.
Bailey: How did you conduct the Rapid Innovation Fund capstone event?
Hasan: This September we gathered all of the vendors and their respective capabilities for a capstone event at Yakima Training Center, Washington. Following training from their home base in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Soldiers from the 1-504 PIR jumped into Yakima for their joint forcible entry and further situational training exercises. All three vendors operated their waveforms and networks over a 36-hour mission, where Soldiers formed three companies—two friendly and one opposing force—to assess the radio waveforms. We monitored network connectivity, number of nodes and positioning location information.
Wong: As part of our data collection process, ATEC [U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command] joined PEO C3T and the N-CFT at Yakima to engage with Soldiers during pauses in the exercise, where they gathered valuable user feedback on radio versatility, operation, strength of voice quality, strength of signal quality, reliability and ergonomics to inform the next generation of radio requirements and acquisitions.
Bailey: What method do you use to ensure you successfully extract the right type of feedback and then quickly use that feedback to develop a relevant capability?
Hasan: The network modernization effort continues to embrace the developmental operations, or DevOps, model to rapidly mature capabilities. DevOps puts Soldiers and developers side by side throughout the entire process. It provides an opportunity for Soldiers to assess and experiment with the technology early in the process and provide feedback to inform the next generation of radio requirements. Vendors are taking that and fixing software, looking at Soldier usability, design, form, fit and function.
Wong: We have found that the DevOps process has proven to be a great success in terms of rapidly getting the right technology into the hands of Soldiers. Even though we think of DevOps as field-based experimentation, we had also much collaboration on the back end between the developers and vendors in both the lab and the field prior to the actual Soldier experimentation. By doing so, we were able to identify and correct issues before a Soldier even touched the waveform capability.
Bailey: What are the Soldiers and vendors saying about working within the DevOps process?
Wong: As a Soldier, I know firsthand this a tremendous morale booster. We are talking to units differently, demonstrating that we are listening to them so that we can return with a better product. They have told me they are thrilled to have the opportunity to assess performance issues and have them repaired on the spot, or see firsthand how their feedback yields a better design a few months versus a few years down the road, or when they have moved on or the technology is obsolete.
Our vendor feedback is just as positive; they have a huge desire and willingness to learn about the conventional Army side of business, including situations such as what it means to be a company commander and maneuvering or a battalion commander leading an airborne exercise. Each of the vendors collaborated very well with the unit.
Bailey: How are you consolidating the feedback to make an informed fielding decision?
Wong: We have a close working relationship with ATEC. Their representatives engaged with Soldiers during pauses in the exercise to gain valuable user feedback on radio versatility, operation, reliability and ergonomics to inform the next generation of radio requirements and acquisitions. We are still consolidating the data, and we know that it is critical that we turn this feedback around and deliver the product they want and need.
Bailey: What was the outcome of the experiments?
Wong: We are in the process of analyzing the Soldier feedback and ATEC data to help inform potential network design for our upcoming network capability sets. We have also provided feedback to the vendors who participated in the [Rapid Innovation Fund] effort so they can continue to operationalize and improve their products.
Bailey: What topics are you addressing for RIFs 18, 19 and 20?
Wong: [Rapid Innovation Fund] 18 is supporting Project Manager Mission Command’s Joint Battle Command – Platform, where we are looking at anti-jam and multipath blue force tracker antennas. For [Rapid Innovation Fund] 19 we are finalizing vendor selections for capabilities that provide next-generation high frequency, high-bandwidth SATCOM [satellite communications] on helicopters, AI-enabled radios and a protected SATCOM chipset. We expect to make a final award in early 2020.
We will spin these technologies into viable prototypes and Soldier experimentation in 12 to 18 months.
Bailey: What advice could you pass on to other organizations—acquisition, industry and Army units, who are considering using the [Rapid Innovation Fund] for their rapid fielding efforts?
Hasan: I have been working at the forefront of engineering for many years and have had the opportunity to work with technology leaders, radio developers, Soldiers and Army leaders. This is one of the first times I was able to work in the field with Soldiers and vendors during a 48-hour mission. Support from our leadership, partnering with N-CFT and 82nd Airborne, combined with our team’s commitments helped us to accomplish [Rapid Innovation Fund] goals and objectives. At the end of the effort, we found that Soldiers truly appreciated these technologies, and that is my greatest satisfaction.
Wong: The [Rapid Innovation Fund] and DevOps has been a game changer for us and I am certain it would be for other organizations seeking to rapidly insert the products Soldiers need, and expect, to enhance their missions. Our goals are always the same; deliver capabilities that are simple, support the mission, are user friendly and provide our Soldiers with the confidence they deserve.
For more information, go to: https://business.defense.gov/Programs/RIF/.
Kathryn Bailey is a public communications specialist for Bowhead Business and Technologies Solutions, assigned to PEO C3T. She holds a B.A. in communications studies from the University of Maryland University College.
This article is published in the Winter 2020 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
Subscribe to Army AL&T News – the premier online news source for the Army Acquisition Workforce.