For at least a decade, the Department of Defense (DoD) has been courting Silicon Valley to help promote and forge working relationships with the government and traditional aerospace contractors. Their aim: accelerate the development of technologies critical to national security in the 21st century. These include, among others, artificial intelligence (AI), autonomy, data analytics, augmented reality, robotics, machine learning, miniature satellites, and advanced computing.
You can’t fault the Pentagon’s logic. When it comes to advancing the state of the art, the phenoms of the tech world, large and small alike, have long displayed a remarkable level of agility. Product innovation usually is measured in months, not years as is typical for many aviation and aerospace companies.
The Defense Dept. currently operates an entity called Defense Innovation Unit (DIU)—previously known as Defense Innovation Unit Experimental or DIUx —
in Silicon Valley to get closer to the potentially game-changing commercial technologies it needs to solve military problems. AI and machine learning are just two areas where DIU is concentrating its efforts. It maintains strong relationships with Silicon Valley venture capitalists, and leverages highly innovative companies in their portfolios.
Recently appointed as the new direction of DIU is Michael Brown, the former chairman and CEO of several technology companies in Silicon Valley. His two primary goals are continuing to deliver advanced commercial technology the military faster and cheaper than traditional acquisition methods, and focus on solving the most important national defense problems with technologies that yield transformational, strategic capabilities. Within each of five technology portfolios are at least one or two transformative project that could have an outsize impact across DoD.
Specific technology advances aside, there probably is no higher priority within the Defense Department’s research and engineering arm than accelerating innovation cycles, which is why the Pentagon is doubling down on identifying advanced technologies rapidly emerging from laboratories outside of its own and those of the traditional contractor base. For that matter, the potential hasn’t been lost on traditional aerospace companies, such as Airbus, which have set up shops of their own in Silicon Valley. Like the Pentagon, they too recognize the need to speed up innovation cycles.
Perhaps less widely known is that many current and veteran Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have an affinity for aerospace, and are pursuing projects to advance the state of the art in airplane design and development. One of the most recent to emerge is San Francisco-based startup Xwing which is developing autonomy software to make small fixed-wing and vertical-lift aircraft easier to fly and eventually fully autonomous.
In a recent forum in San Francisco, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, Pentagon officials, and influential aerospace industry veterans gathered to discuss innovation and how to expand collaboration between Silicon Valley and DoD and the aerospace industry.
A prominent executive who ran AI engineering teams for one of the world’s most celebrated tech-sector giants at the outset spelled out in no uncertain terms what sets ground-breaking Silicon Valley companies apart: their focus on velocity. “Most engineering teams [outside Silicon Valley] work on problems that are handed to them, versus thinking out of the box,” the executive said. “This tends to constrain the solutions you come up with.”
Unlike the aerospace industry, “Silicon Valley has never been about prototypes,” he noted. Rather, it’s about getting into the marketplace and collecting data flows to observe the market and your customers. Rapid cycles of innovation—that is where Silicon Valley really excels.” Other tech sector executives echoed the same themes.
Among forum participants was a representative of DoD’s Special Operations Command, outside of DIU, who’s been tasked with developing a template for engaging Silicon Valley venture capitalists and companies. “The idea is to get more people and companies talking to us, determine what [DoD] policies need to be changed and strategize around very specific problems we need to solve.”
While such direct outreach appears to hold a great deal of promise, the cultural divide between the two sides still remains a bit of a speed bump. But if DoD and the aerospace industry can convince Silicon Valley principals they are willing and capable of thinking more like entrepreneurs, the product of their collaboration could be extraordinary.