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Bridging the Gap: NPS to Accelerate Innovation from Concept to Capability

U.S. Navy Lt. James Dubyoski and NPS assistant professor Tony Pollman conduct testing on the Disposable Reusable Expeditionary Warfare Underwater Vehicle

U.S. Navy Lt. James Dubyoski and NPS assistant professor Tony Pollman conduct testing on the Disposable Reusable Expeditionary Warfare Underwater Vehicle (DREW UV) in collaboration with Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City, Fla. Alongside expert faculty, NPS student’s operational insight informs applied research, and in partnership with other naval research labs and industry, can accelerate the innovation cycle to move research concepts from idea to impact.

Innovation has long been part of the foundation of U.S. military power. Indeed, the call for greater innovation is at the forefront of both the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy.

In recent months, President Biden and the Defense Innovation Board have called for increased innovation from the Department of Defense, with President Biden asserting, “We have to maintain our military advantage.” 

Echoing this imperative, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro is challenging the Department of the Navy to restore its technological superiority, urging the Navy and commercial industry leaders to stay ahead of our pacing challenge by redoubling innovation efforts.

“The threats we face demand us to do more,” Del Toro said at this year’s Surface Navy Association (SNA) National Symposium.

As part of Del Toro’s goal to accelerate innovation across every corner of the naval enterprise, he has called for a bold new vision for the naval education and innovation ecosystem. Central to this vision is Del Toro’s recent announcement to establish a Naval Innovation Center at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS).

Focused on answering this challenge, NPS is incorporating a portfolio of current and future initiatives that form an initial Naval Innovation Center operating concept. Together, these efforts will move research solutions from ideas to impacts that add value at greater speed and scale by leveraging cross-institutional approaches to a repeatable innovation process.

“Education is the key connector for this work,” said Del Toro. “Our educational institutions hold great promise and opportunity.”

Because of its location on the NPS campus in Monterey, Calif., the Naval Innovation Center will be near the heart of the nation’s technology corridor, making it a key resource for the Navy and Marine Corps. The Naval Innovation Center will solve complex challenges through applied research, analysis, prototyping, and experimentation in collaboration with the defense industrial base, the technology sector, and academia.

Although the announcement of the Naval Innovation Center at NPS is new, scholarship focusing on innovation and its processes has a long history at NPS. In fact, NPS is the DON’s only educational institution providing advanced certificates, executive education, and master’s degrees in innovation. NPS is one of 24 naval centers of innovation – and the only one that is both a research university and a designated defense laboratory.

However, as Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday remarked at the 2023 SNA National Symposium, “the challenge is still taking new systems, new platforms, new capabilities from prototype to low-rate production in a timely manner.”

Gilday expanded on this approach by calling for the Navy to “move out as quickly as we can, but in a deliberate manner that’s informed by experimentation,” so the service has increased confidence in the proposed solution’s impact before investing to scale capability.

The Naval Innovation Center at NPS represents a new whole-of-university approach to methodically address naval priorities by curating challenges underpinning key operational problems, ideating possible solutions that apply emerging technologies to those problems, prototyping, collaborating and experimenting with minimum viable solutions, and facilitating the transition to a warfighting capability.

"The NIC operating concept at NPS relies on a combination of new and old processes to establish a complete innovation cycle,” explained NPS Vice Provost for Research Dr. Kevin Smith, who leads NPS’ newly formed Office of Research and Innovation (OR&I). “Ideas will be curated through the Naval Warfare Studies Institute’s engagement with fleet customers, solutions conceived through the Warfare Innovation Continuum workshops, prototyped and experimented with by Naval Innovation Exchange teams, and then prepared for acquisition strategy through the Department of Defense Management’s Innovation Capstone Project.”

As part of the innovation cycle, NPS conducts an annual year-long campaign of analysis through a Warfare Innovation Continuum (WIC) centered on a single overarching naval warfighting theme. Since 2009, the WIC presents a deliberate approach to relevant problem curation and facilitated human design ideation that proposes concepts and capabilities to address complex warfighting challenges.

Each campaign is initiated in the fall through a week-long WIC workshop, where interdisciplinary concept generation teams propose ideas for how to meet associated concept and capability challenges. These teams consist of NPS faculty, warrior-scholars, naval sponsors, industry participants, and Sailors and Marines of the fleet and Fleet Marine Force. Minimum viable concepts emerge and are explored over the remaining three quarters through workshops, academic courses, capstone projects, wargames, research efforts, ship designs, thesis work, white papers, prototyping, and experimentation. Future approaches to the WIC will align with and inform the Navy’s Analytic Master Plan (AMP) and future AMP Campaigns of Learning.

Another component of the cycle consists of newly formed Naval Innovation Exchange (NIX) teams – student, faculty, and industry innovators poised to accelerate technology adoption through an iterative interdisciplinary research cycle by driving ideation and prototyping through thorough testing and evaluation.

NIX teams work across education programs to conduct research “sprints” that identify technically informed opportunities for the adoption of new technologies into the fleet and Fleet Marine Force. The initial NIX teams are forming to solve operational problems and are aligned to critical enabling capabilities identified in the CNO’s Navigation Plan (NAVPLAN) Implementation Framework – specifically including intelligent autonomous systems (IAS), artificial intelligence (AI), and additive manufacturing (AM).

"We are innovation-driven at NPS,” said U.S. Marine Corps Col. Randy Pugh, director of the Naval Warfare Studies Institute (NWSI). “Officers come here to make a difference, and the NIC at NPS will provide state-of-the-art processes, tools, and physical spaces that will enable them to combine what they are learning and their operational insights to solve real problems alongside faculty, naval engineers, and industry entrepreneurs.”

Project-focused partnerships with industry are facilitated by Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs), a catalyst for innovation. NIX teams will bring thought leaders together and expand the solution capability and capacity of the Naval Research and Development Establishment (NR&DE) through iterative development and experimentation with the end user to speed the innovation cycle.

NPS field experimentation began in 2002 to encourage innovation and collaboration between DOD, federal and state government agencies, industry, and academia. Field experimentation events utilized participation from Special Operations Forces (SOF), the Army and Air National Guard, and first responders to provide feedback on the effectiveness, affordability, and feasibility of new technologies.

In 2012, the Joint Interagency Field Experimentation (JIFX) program evolved from successful NPS field research in collaboration with U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). JIFX is focused on providing a field experimentation resource and innovative cooperative learning environment for DOD and federal agencies with an informing system capable of addressing their unique science and technology capability gaps.

Today, JIFX conducts quarterly experimentation events advancing research and discovery in unmanned systems and autonomous vehicles and associated enabling capabilities. Previous JIFX events included exercising swarm tactics with unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) in collaboration with the Georgia Tech Research Institute, demonstration of winged-UAS vertical launch and recovery from a concealed and confined area with an industry partner, and a quad-rotor UAV that is now in service as a lightweight, low-cost intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) solution for the Marine Corps. NPS JIFX events at Camp Roberts, an Army National Guard installation in Paso Robles, Calif., and in Monterey Bay provide a means to evaluate emerging technologies and prototypes developed in partnership with NPS warrior-scholars.

Multiple NPS programs provide opportunities for Innovation Capstone Projects developing operationally minded strategic leaders and cross-functional solutions for warfighting effectiveness. NPS’ Department of Defense Management is now piloting an Innovation Capstone Project that is uniquely focused on developing an acquisition strategy to drive technology transition into programmed capabilities.

Defense management innovation integrates technical, acquisition, and operational domains in education and research to transition technology into warfighting capabilities. Focused on identifying future capabilities and platforms with modernization in mind – hardware upgradable and software updatable at the speed of innovation – Defense Management’s Innovation Capstone Projects begin with an identified Program Executive Office (PEO). The PEOs are responsible for the development and acquisition of platforms and warfighting solutions and critical to enabling the transition of innovative capabilities to the Navy and Marine Corps.  

To facilitate lowering barriers to collaboration, attracting industry partners, and providing institutional support to project management, NPS’ OR&I is building the framework to evolve from a transactional mindset to a collaborative academia-defense-industry approach that will deliver capability at the speed of technological change.

“NPS has built up this incredible strength and network of research power,” said Smith. “Our efforts at OR&I are aimed at not only encouraging research projects but also paving the way for them to succeed past their development stages. With such innovative potential, we need to make sure we complete the cycle and get these solutions into the hands of the warfighter.”

OR&I will facilitate the innovation process and is developing several new mechanisms to optimize the Naval Innovation Center at NPS as a distinct naval capability, fusing defense education and research with operational insight and industry technologies to accelerate innovation for maritime dominance. 

“Education and research are two sides of the same innovation coin at NPS,” said Smith. “The Naval Innovation Center will optimize NPS as a technology accelerator. Innovation at NPS is about accelerating impact. The experiential learning of applied research and hands-on innovation delivers solutions and develops solution leaders.”

Warfighter and warfighting development at NPS is a catalyst for technological leadership and decision advantage.

Graduates from NPS return to the fleet with the knowledge and skills and a proven ability to apply what they learned, while the Naval Innovation Center will accelerate and scale their research concepts into capabilities helping to bridge the gap to the end user.

“I think that the United States Navy is exceptional at understanding the integration of the art of war with the science of war,” said Gilday.

NPS is where science meets the art of warfare.


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