With science and technology resources shrinking along with the Defense Department’s budget, research leaders in DoD have had to make some tradeoffs in the way they allocate resources. One area they’ve chosen to emphasize is the field of “big data.”
The Pentagon has invested billions in a new generation of electronic systems that gather and store vast quantities of imagery and other data from the battlefield, and the digital deluge is so vast that sifting through it manually to generate actionable information is not a sustainable option, officials said.
DoD is not alone. The Pentagon joined four other federal departments and agencies at a White House event in late March to announce $200 million in governmentwide big data research efforts.
“I think we’re here in large part because of the success of technology development in a number of these domains,” said Zach Lemnios, the assistant secretary of Defense for research and engineering during an appearance on Federal News Radio’s On DoD. “We have progressed the quality of imagers and the quality of sensors to the point where our limitation is no longer the front end collection tools, it’s the back-end decision tools. How do I take a large data set and integrate it in a time critical way?”
The Pentagon says the implications for better handling of big data would be enormous for platforms such as the unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance drones that have proliferated throughout operational theatres over the past ten years.
“Today, we spend a lot of resources and man hours analyzing imagery. We’re now starting to look at algorithms that can automate that process and help an analyst understand what the salient features are in an image and how to correlate those. That’s really the challenge before us,” Lemnios said.
The Pentagon already spends roughly $250 million per year on projects under the broad heading of “big data.” Lemnios’ office recently announced another $60 million in solicitations aimed at everything from autonomous systems to the way humans make decisions through intuition to more natural interactions between machines and people.
“Think of a tethered robot where some operator is using a joystick to maneuver a robot in and around obstacles. Now fast forward a little bit and imagine a system that understands the environment, and understands when it doesn’t understand the environment and has to call back home for help. All of that has to be done in a wrapper of trust,” Lemnios said. “These systems need to understand when they can make a decision and when they can’t. It sounds very much like science fiction, but we are really in a place where academia has built a foundation for a lot of this, and we’re starting to see elements of it presenting itself even in the private sector.”
Lemnios’ office has centralized its pending big data solicitations along with the rest of its science and technology investment plans on a new website, Defense Innovation Marketplace. The site’s purpose is threefold: it’s designed to let industry and academia easily find new science and technology procurements, to let DoD officials sort through emerging technological capabilities in the private sector and to take in information about those capabilities from DoD vendors.
New rules the department finalized in January require “major contractors” who are reimbursed at least $11 million per year for their independent research to submit high-level overviews of their research projects to the website. Lemnios said the site is designed both to give DoD insight into what research activities are happening outside the Pentagon, and to keep vendors from having to speculate about what the department’s research priorities are.
“I’ve been in both government and industry. I’ve seen the guesswork, and I’ve seen where it’s worked and where it hasn’t in the past,” Lemnios said. “This is one way for us to try to be very clear about where we’re going. We’re trying to make our solicitations much more transparent, and to make it much easier for someone who has an idea to come in and try to connect that idea with the challenges the Department faces.”