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What does it take for Defence tech innovation to succeed?

This year has seen three Defence Innovation Hub (DIH) Uncrewed Aerial System (UAS) innovation successes become open source. These innovations are exemplars for how Defence tech innovation can succeed, and shine a light on important considerations for future innovation activities.

The greatest of those three (so far) is the Ascent Vision Technology (AVT) CM234 Spitfire Gimbal, which was chosen as the primary electro-optic (camera) and targeting system for Defence’s Tactical UAS. The inclusion of the CM234 Spitfire in the project replacing 20th Regiment’s RQ-7B Shadow 200 under LAND129 Phase 3 was announced in March 2022, with the project itself having been confirmed by Defence’s Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group (CASG) in 2021.

The other two are spun out of the first ever DIH Special Notice in 2017, the Small UAS (SUAS) of the Future challenge. They are:

These three stories are something to be proud of. These capabilities illustrate how Army can successfully team with industry to take whiteboard ideas to technology innovation in production.

But the journey wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. These properties make them fantastic case studies, so let’s look at five big lessons to learn…

A flood of good ideas. Since DIH opened in 2017, approximately 17% of all submissions are for uncrewed technologies. These submissions resulted in approximately 25% of awarded DIH contracts.

Lesson: ADF is spoiled for choice. We can be confident that our UAS, robotics, autonomous systems and artificial intelligence industries are something that Australia could be great at, globally, if we invest in these early years. However, the Service capability managers are swamped. It is not usually part of their duty statements and is above and beyond their core role of delivering their major projects.

Fix: Tech innovation must be resourced to succeed and steered by challenge statements.

Start-ups: The three highlighted success stories started as efforts of the Army UAS team within the Battlefield Aviation Program and small to medium enterprise companies with a technology innovation focuses, as low Technology Readiness Level Concept Explorations i.e. collaborations around whiteboards with subject matter experts.

Lesson: Capability managers need to care and allocate time to early tech collaboration, to understand how innovation contracting is undertaken (as opposed to ASDEFCON contracting), as well as play the long game. Further, they need to be faster and more agile in their policy/procedure approaches, particularly given that Defence is not used to working and contracting with start-up companies.

Fix: Train capability managers in innovation phases, talent identification, partnering and support requirements, including light-touch, agile contracting. This could be led by the Defence Innovation Hub or the Office for Defence Industry Support.

It takes time: All three of these success stories started on whiteboards in 2017/8. That’s 4 to 5 years to get them to production or at least mature enough to be tender-ready.

Lesson: The expectation that you can just ‘do’ innovation between first and second pass government approval, when the risk reduction activity funds are available, is flawed. Tech innovation has to happen early, at or before Gate 0 and in concert with concept led capability and prototype development. Depending on the need, this might mean responding to the concept, or driving it.

Fix: Build tech innovation into the Gate 0 of capability life cycle as a standard feature.

Funding: SUAS of the Future is, to the best of my knowledge, the only DIH Special Notice that has been kicked off by major project funds. It worked because there was a known time of approximately 4 to 7 years until L129-4B, was championed as a concept by the senior leaders such as the Chief of Army and Head Land Capability (HLC), supported by the Chief Defence Scientist (CDS)) and driven by motivated staff who were playing a long game. The strategic goal of that L129-4 seed funding was to ensure that Australian Industry competed for L129-4B. That goal has been met.

Lesson: Project funded Special Notices can work, but they need to be triggered at project commencement, or earlier under development funding, if we’re to expect that industry will be able to bid that innovation / technology at second pass government approval.

Fix: In conjunction with building it into the process as a standard feature, tech innovation needs to be funded from Gate 0 of capability life cycle as a standard feature.

Phase transition, where the tech is evaluated and approved to receive more investment: This was not simple and needed to be argued to new decision makers at each phase transition in each case. In the case of the Sypaq Corvo-X transition to Phase 2, despite Army funding being available and allocated, the DIH phase transition process was very immature.We had to work around the system by undertaking Phase 2 Technology Demonstration as an Army Innovation Contract; disrupting the flow of innovation development by jumping responsibility from the Hub, to Army: slow, clunky and highly inefficient. The optic had changed for Corvo-X’s Phase 3 transition, which returned prototyping to a DIH Contract.

Fix: Phase transition should be assumed and planned for, and work to transition should be scheduled appropriately ahead of current phase completion. Criteria for off-ramps should be clear, and off-ramp health indicators established ahead of Phase completion. I.e. assume success rather than failure.

If one chooses to look closer, there are three additional, albeit smaller, lessons to also learn:

Championship of an innovation project can not be assured due to posting cycles. Five years to go from whiteboard to production is two or three posting cycles for the responsible staff officers/decision makers. If the replacement staff officer doesn’t believe in the innovation or can’t find the time, there is a good chance the innovation will wither on the vine.

Fix: Championship, Commander’s intent and issued directives from the senior leaders above the staff – this will hold the new staff to account.

Recognition. Due to the time to go from whiteboard to production, and those posting cycles, it is very difficult to recognise the effort and vision of the innovation staff officers: It’s almost impossible to deliver real innovation in a single posting cycle as our Defence processes take too long. Achieving strategic outcomes over a long game and real Australian Industry Capability development is conspicuous and commendable. I’m sorry to say that sometimes it is a point of criticism of those staff officers: I have heard it said by senior leaders and peers; “Why would you waste your time on that?” and “They’re not a prime, it’ll never get up, so it’s a waste of time.” This is very similar for minor projects staff officers where our people are generating significant strategic effect by filling capability gaps in their Services, but rarely complete the task in one posting. Stirling service and strategic foresight in both scenarios is rarely recognised.

Our innovation system is not innovative. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we have the DIH, but these contracts have not moved at the pace of the technology or at the capacity of the innovation companies. In the case of the L129-4 funding, the first year of funding was lost (unspent) because the DIH took so long to spin up the Special Notice framework. If we are to replicate and improve case studies such as these three, our processes need to be made much more effective.

Innovation should not be treated under standard procurement processes. I am hopeful, but not at all confident given it has been a full year now, that last year’s review of the DIH will yield the improvements necessary to have an effective innovation system.

The release of these stories come at a perfect time as it aligns with industry strategy to celebrate our successes. They are stories to be proud of for anyone involved. They prove that through partnering with Australian Industry Capability, Defence can make a real difference to generating a warfighting advantage. By extension, they show that capability development can be done in many different ways along with the traditional support given by the Primes.

But it could be so much better!

Above are eight lessons for how to do innovation better. If you are running a project (top down) or pitching for a Brigade Innovation Day (bottom up), these lessons are applicable and I hope can generate real, winning tech innovation for you.

Wing Commander Keirin Joyce, CSC is an Air Force officer who has been supporting UAS technology development within the ADF for the last 15+ years.


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