Defense Technology Sought in Non-Traditional Markets

By Erwin, Sandra I. | National Defense, November 2012 | Go to article overview
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Defense Technology Sought in Non-Traditional Markets

Erwin, Sandra I., National Defense

* Software that was developed for the U.S. Army to create a battlefield network could be repurposed to protect the nation's electrical grid. Domestic law-enforcement agencies need communications systems that are similar to those that connect troops in war zones. The sensors that help soldiers detect buried bombs in Afghanistan also have application in NASA interplanetary probes.

Pentagon officials often lament that the government no longer leads the innovation revolution as it did during the Cold War. But there is still considerable demand for Defense Department-funded technology industry and government officials insist.

The challenge is not a dearth of innovation but rather the difficulties in matching the supply with the demand.

Case in point is the energy sector, where regional utilities are looking to the defense industry to help build "smart" electrical grids that distribute energy more efficiently and also are hardened against cyber-attacks.

"The energy industry is undergoing the largest transformation in history," says Michael Niggli, president and chief operating officer of San Diego Gas & Electric, a supplier of electricity and natural gas in Southern California.

Pentagon-funded technologies in the areas of smart grids and encryption are needed more than ever, Niggli says. "For the security of the grid, we coalesce with the defense industry."

Niggli is part of a wide-ranging group of energy, defense, information-technology firms, universities, public safety and government agencies based in Southern California that are trying to promote partnerships as a way to ease the transfer of technology from suppliers to customers.

The group, called the Technolink Association, has approximately 100 members, said its founder, Ssusan Forte O'Neill. Technolink members recently spoke with National Defense about what they believe is a growing need for public-private partnerships to boost innovation in the national security sector.

In the energy arena, there is valuable technology that the military needs, says Niggli. In Southern California, "We're square one in technology innovations in renewable energy. .... We have the highest penetration of solar power and the largest rollout of electric vehicles." The U.S. military, meanwhile, wants to be greener and reduce fuel costs. Ongoing research in the energy sector on batteries and microgrids is particularly relevant to the Defense Department, he adds.

Top Pentagon contractor The Boeing Co. has been making forays into the energy sector in hopes of diversifying its defense business. A new arm of Boeing's Southern California-based weapons laboratory Phantom Works, called Phantom Works Ventures, specifically is targeting opportunities in smart grid work, says Daryl Pelc, vice president of engineering and technology at Boeing Phantom Works.

One of Boeing's largest military programs, the Future Combat Systems, was terminated in 2009 after the Army decided it was too complex and too expensive. Pieces of the command-and-control "middleware" software that was developed to connect weapon systems are now being dusted off and possibly recycled for electric-grid use, Pelc says. "We think we can adapt the capability that started with the Army's Future Combat Systems program," he says. "The middleware software can be applied to the different nodes that make up the grid."

Boeing also has tapped into its Hughes Research Laboratory, which is a joint venture with General Motors Corp., to bring HRL's latest advances in microelectronics and communications technology into its satellite and aircraft businesses, Pelc says.

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