The Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) hosted its annual Big Ideas Exchange (BIX), May 14, with six students – U.S. Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force officers – presenting innovative research involving artificial intelligence, machine learning, autonomous systems and more that aimed to advance fleet and joint force readiness, capabilities and capacities within a broader context of Great Power Competition.
Focused on groundbreaking concepts, BIX is an NPS initiative to showcase student research, in a “TED Talk” style, addressing current and emerging national security challenges. This year, the event included immediate feedback from an in-person and virtual panel of 12 senior leaders and mentors from the DOD, academia and industry.
Student topics included the application of emerging technologies to areas such as intelligence, training, ship maintenance, mobility resilience and sustainability, as well as a transregional Foreign Area Officer (FAO) program.
According to BIX mentor and panelist retired Adm. Thomas Fargo, a former commander of the U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Pacific Fleet, BIX offers the student researchers something very important at this point in their careers – the experience of making their case.
“I think it’s a great experience for the students because there is nothing more important for them at this point in their career than being able to stand up and make their case and think on their feet in response to challenging questions,” said Fargo.
“I think [BIX] is hugely valuable because you get a good feel for whether the students are working on the right kind of research problems and you gain a clear understanding that their efforts are directly connected to Fleet operations and maintenance,” he continued. “It really helps show outside entities the value of the work being done at NPS, not only from the standpoint of the students doing research, but also how it connects to their future.”
Coordinating the event in part was U.S. Army Lt. Col. Michael ‘Kelly’ McCoy, NPS Strategy Chair. McCoy noted the students who presented at BIX epitomize what it looks like when you foster an environment that promotes technological leadership to achieve warfighting advantages.
“BIX brings forward new and potentially game-changing thinking developed by NPS students to address grand challenges in American national security,” said McCoy. “These fresh approaches can often become the lifeblood of future innovations in military and naval organization, doctrine and strategy. They reflect and augment larger changes emerging in the world from recent technological advances.”
By having all six students present in a hybrid environment, McCoy believes the energy of the in-person engagement with the added benefit of increasing the aperture of senior leaders and mentors tuning in virtually was advantageous for each presenter, allowing them to receive constructive feedback from the multi-disciplined panel, and help guide their ‘big idea’ to the next step.
“The bottom line of the event is to get ideas put into action,” noted McCoy. “For that to happen requires not only resourcing and a sponsor, but more importantly a champion. To bring these elements together requires the right combination of people, who otherwise might not have been in the same room together.”
U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Michael Gannon’s research, titled “Commercial-Off-the-Shelf Technology to Replicate High-End Systems for Training,” gets directly to the point of how he looks to leverage existing technology to develop and readily field cost-effective training simulators that deliver stand-alone capabilities within institutional, garrison and deployed environments.
“I think the DOD is on the cusp of modernizing the educational and training system across the forces,” said Gannon. “The cost savings that my concept has allows for the immediate and maximum integration and utilization of the technology across the DOD.”
By leveraging existing technology and learning management systems, Gannon’s research found that computer-aided instruction can be integrated with training simulators for cents on the dollar compared to training on actual equipment. This radical new approach to training aide development has the potential to supplement the learning environments of schoolhouses across the DOD, he says, providing real-time data collection on learning modalities and students' knowledge, skills and abilities while simultaneously reducing the logistical burden of training.
Moving from training to maintenance, U.S. Navy Lt. Bridger Smith’s big idea is to pair submariners, maintainers and software developers together to develop and ultimately deliver a software suite that addresses the readiness needs of today’s submariners and maintainers.
“In a data-driven 21st Century, the ability to rapidly deliver safe and secure software is the new standard,” said Smith. “Given the opportunity to work with the waterfronts, we can usher in a new era of maintenance planning and execution through software development. Our efforts would contribute to the Navy-wide effort of getting our ships and submarines out to sea on time and on budget.”
According to Smith, we are in the midst of a technological arms race and those who can operate at the speed of technological relevance and automation will be the victors. The submarine force will need to be able to rapidly assess data and incorporate new technologies to better maintain ships and keep them in fighting shape, he says, so a ‘development, security, and operations’ (DevSecOps) pipeline helps ensure the Navy stays on the leading edge of these technologies and give the warfighters everything they need.
Fargo, a submariner by trade, noted that Smith’s big idea, and Lt. Samuel Royster’s idea using autonomous systems for hull husbandry and inspection below the waterline, resonated with him as both address challenges Fargo had experienced over the past few decades.
“It’s pretty clear from every time I’ve spent time at NPS that the quality of education is superb,” said Fargo. “I think the fact that these officers are involved in this pivotal research is hugely beneficial to their future. They develop analytical skills that will be imperative moving forward to solve problems, whether they’re operational problems or more in the maintenance and logistics world, and because of that, that education benefits the Fleet and benefits the Navy.
“I believe it’s reached the best level of practical adoption that I’ve seen to date,” said Fargo.