DoD special unit bridges ‘valley of death’

As someone who can’t even watch a video of skydiving without getting vertigo, I say to grinning jumpers, “Have fun! I’ll wait here on the ground.”

People all over the world thrill skydiving as a sport.

In the military, they do this professionally, for the purposes of getting troops into dangerous areas on the ground. Relative to most for-fun parachutists, military members jump from higher, carry more gear, and use decidedly un-decorative equipment. More importantly, military jumpers have work to do when they reach the ground. That means packages of materiel also get parachuted down. And not just packets of sports gummies. How about Humvees strapped to pallets?

Now the military drop world has turned to the sporting world for help. I read this in the most recent quarterly report of DIUx — the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental. DIUx must be doing good. It not only survived the presidential transition, it merited a recent visit by the new Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

The quarterly report briefly highlights a contract on behalf of Army Special Forces with a DeLand, Florida company called United Parachute Technologies. The company’s quirky website shows it’s not your typical military contractor. But DIUx tapped it to “develop a tandem and tethered bundle recovery system that will enable operators to suspend additional substantial weight during all phases of parachuting.”

As far as I can tell, the current weight limit for a tethered (to the jumper) bundle is 400 pounds or so. Maybe the Army wants a driver to be able to parachute with his Humvee, so he can climb in and drive away after landing.

This DIUx contract appears to seek not so much a revolutionary technology as rather an extension of existing capability. But it does follow the stated strategy of DIUx to find innovating companies that may not be military contractors.

Other DIUx deals aim to apply existing commercial, if relatively new, technologies to military use cases.  For example, it has a contract with Halo Neuroscience. The company’s scary-looking $750 headphones supply an electrical field across the motor cortex, said to increase the plasticity of the brain and therefore the ability to absorb learning or training fast. Jocks use it, whether on the 110-meter hurdles or at a piano keyboard. Now Special Operations forces are using the headsets for improving marksmanship and strength training. Quid supplies analytics tools to massive written information sets. DIUx contracted with that company on behalf of the Army and Special Operations Command.

Innovation might be part of DIUx’s name, but velocity is one of its main benefits. Its relatively few contract actions — 37 since June 2016 — have delivered newfangled products into DoD’s hands with the same speed as, say, ordnance rounds resupply orders. Maybe faster. DIUx cites specific authorities to move from sample to production orders fast, enabling commercial innovation to survive the “valley of death” that often separates newer capabilities from the men and women in uniform.

That’s the real innovation.

This post originally appeared as a column at FederalNewsRadio.com

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