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Many Projects in Pentagon’s Emerging Tech Program Still Stuck in Development

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A Defense Department program that funds emerging technology development isn’t actually transitioning enough of that technology out of the research phase, a new Government Accountability Office report suggests.

By the end of the 2014 solicitation, DOD’s “Rapid Innovation Program” will have awarded contracts for about 435 projects, after receiving 11,000 white papers on proposed technologies from businesses. Congress devoted about $1.3 billion to the program in appropriations, according to GAO.

RIP projects have included technology that could improve manufacturing of one part of a thermal battery insulation system, which could potentially grow the lifespan of missile power sources. Another project is a hand pump designed to filter and purify water on the battlefield.

In a recent audit of 44 RIP projects from the 2011 fiscal year, GAO found that only 22 were transitioned to a government acquisition program, a military user, a prime contractor or eventually commercialized. Other DOD tech programs have higher transition rates, often between 55 and 85 percent, the report said.

Technology that has been successfully transitioned includes the Navy’s wireless vibration recorder, a measurement device that can detect vibrations in aircraft, helping researchers understand why aircraft components fail. That technology is now commercially available, according to GAO. Another project developed training software for Army officers and has been delivered to users at West Point.

In its assessment, GAO found that several other RIP projects encountered delays, and had asked for extensions, on research generally required to be completed within two years.

Teams behind projects that haven’t been transitioned provided a variety of reasons for the lull. For instance, a Navy project developing a way to filter out interference in military radios needed more funding; another Navy project, which aimed to improve torpedo noses’ performance in shallow water, needed additional testing.

But DOD hasn’t been tracking RIP program transition outcomes, GAO found. Auditors recommended DOD establish more formal goals for the programs to better measure success. GAO recommended Congress require DOD to submit an annual report on transitioning technology from RIP.

In general, GAO wrote, “there has not been an effort to understand the extent to which these factors may be contributing to differences in transition” and, later, “to communicate lessons learned from military departments or defense components with a higher percentage of transition success.”

DOD representatives disagreed with GAO’s recommendation that it should establish an overall transition goal for RIP, according to comments included in the report.

“[W]e need to retain the flexibility in RIP to address risky technical requirements that may not be mature enough to satisfy cost, schedule or performance requirements for acquisition programs; but may be opportunities for prototyping, experimentation, or innovative test and evaluation," they wrote.

(Image via Frontpage/ Shutterstock.com)

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