In his 2018 TED Talk, Will Marshall, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Planet, outlined his company’s bold new quest: Use artificial intelligence to comprehensively track change across the entire earth using daily, high resolution satellite imagery. Marshall went on to describe how Planet, his Silicon Valley startup, became the first organization in history to image the entire earth every day. Planet’s imagery has the potential to greatly improve a host of Coast Guard mission sets such as icebreaking, fisheries management, environmental monitoring and law enforcement.
Planet is one example of how Silicon Valley is disrupting the world in which the Coast Guard operates. In recent years, other federal agencies, including the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have recognized the value in leveraging emerging Silicon Valley companies, and they have launched research and development (R&D) initiatives in the region.
The Coast Guard would benefit by following suit and establishing a physical presence in Silicon Valley in the form of a remote R&D team, that could be called R&D Command-Silicon Valley (RDC-SV). Operating like a start-up, the team would be the Coast Guard’s “eyes and ears” in the region, networking with established tech-firms such as Facebook and Google and emerging companies such as Planet. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Schultz has emphasized in his Guiding Principles that one of his key priorities is keeping the Coast Guard relevant in a rapidly-evolving world. RDC-SV would be one tool the Coast Guard could use to improve its innovation culture and relevance at a time when challenges facing the Service include an evolving arctic, cyber threats, illegal drugs and human trafficking.
Existing Coast Guard R&D Infrastructure
The Coast Guard’s existing R&D model largely revolves around building custom technologies at the service’s Research and Development Center (RDC). Based in New London, Connecticut, the RDC is working on more than 70 projects at any given point. Over the years, the RDC work has played a significant role in improving Coast Guard operations. For example, the RDC played a key role in building the Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System (SAROPS)—the CG's primary software for planning search missions—which has helped save thousands of lives since its development.
The RDC model has proved successful in the past, but in an era of exponential technological change, much of it happening in the private sector, it is becoming increasingly difficult for an in-house R&D effort to keep up. As a result, the Coast Guard faces a widening “tech gap” between what is technologically possible and the service’s operational capabilities. In the past it has taken the Coast Guard at least 24 months to go from research to a written contract. By the time a platform or system has been fielded, it often is outdated. Technology is evolving at a rate that the Coast Guard’s traditional R&D and acquisitions processes cannot handle.
One of the key forces feeding the Coast Guard’s tech gap is the service does not utilize “Other Transaction Authority” (OTA). Government agencies have a standard contracting process to ensure taxpayer money is not being abused. This process presents challenges to get new technology fielded because it is slow and difficult to navigate. Agencies such as DOD, the FAA, and a host of others are able to sidestep the traditional contracting process particularly to get new technology fielded quickly using OT authority. Agreements written under OTA look more like commercial contracts with conditions and terms negotiable between the parties. It can allow a contract to be signed within 45-60 days. The Coast Guard’s ability to move new technology quickly into the hands of its operators would be greatly improved with this authority.
The Coast Guard’s R&D infrastructure is central to its success. There is no doubt the service’s current R&D infrastructure has bred incredible successes. That said, there are opportunities to greatly improve its effectiveness. Establishing a presence in Silicon Valley is one of them.
Opportunities in Silicon Valley
Up to this point, opportunities in Silicon Valley have largely been glossed over by the Coast Guard. In August 2017, Admiral Zukunft, then Commandant of the Coast Guard, described limitations associated with the Silicon Valley mindset of “fail often and fail fast.” Traditionally, the Coast Guard has invested in large acquisition projects with 25+ year life-cycles. Failure with a class of cutters would break trust with the American people. The Coast Guard’s acquisitions program struggles to take advantage of emerging technologies. Merging the strengths of Silicon Valley into the Coast Guard’s R&D framework would present a massive opportunity to field capability quickly and build the trust of the American people.
Other government agencies recognize the value that Silicon Valley offers. DOD operates the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), an offshoot designed to identify startups whose work could have national security relevance. DIU allows the DOD to work with companies that traditionally would not interface with the defense world. Similarly, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) recently launched NGA Outpost Valley (NOV). NOV’s mission is two-fold: launch cutting-edge projects and serve as a networking-spearhead for the agency. In a sense, they exist to connect brilliant entrepreneurs to NGA’s existing R&D framework. Beyond this, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) operates its Silicon Valley Innovation Program (SVIP) similarly to DIU but with a focus on DHS mission sets. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have been involved with projects under SVIP. The Coast Guard—DHS’s third largest agency—however, has not.
DIU offers a wealth of insights into how the Coast Guard can establish a successful program. It shows that it is possible to go from idea to field deployment in under 60 days. DIU was an early investor in Sonitus, which makes “molar microphones,” a device that clips to your teeth for communications. Soldiers maintain greater situational awareness because they can communicate more easily with one another and listen to what is going on around them. After a contract was signed in late summer 2016, molar microphones were deployed with the Air National Guard in Afghanistan two months later. Since then, they were used by Air Force Pararescuemen during Hurricane Harvey with great success, and they are being deployed with Air Force special operations teams. This example showcases what a team based in Silicon Valley can bring to the table: Identifying promising technologies, quickly matching them with sponsors, and then executing a contract within a short timeframe.
Establishing a presence in Silicon Valley could be key step toward closing the service’s tech gap. The small scope of the Coast Guard’s R&D framework makes it difficult to maintain a broad array of talent and expertise in fast-changing areas including artificial intelligence, autonomous and systems, to name a few.
RDC - Silicon Valley
RDC-Silicon Valley would be a 6-to-10 person team composed of military and civilian personnel designed to operate similarly to NGA Outpost Valley’s model. Civilian members would be Coast Guard-outsiders with a specific research focus (cyber security, autonomous systems, artificial intelligence) and serve for two- to three-year terms, similar to Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program managers. Fresh minds and fresh ideas would be key to the group’s success. Military members would bring a knowledge of Coast Guard missions and operations and understand where an idea might fit in within this operational picture.
This team would be the Coast Guard’s “eyes and ears” in Silicon Valley. Their primary mission would be to connect promising emerging companies with the right part of the Coast Guard’s existing R&D framework. In addition, they would advise Coast Guard senior leaders on decisions regarding technology policy, as the team would be the Coast Guard’s subject matter experts on various emerging technologies. RDC-SV would have the ability to host “prototype contests” and acquire innovative products from emerging companies using OT authority. Looking long-term, RDC-SV would evolve into a model similar to DIU’s, focusing on acquiring technologies for Coast Guard operators that the traditional acquisition process cannot handle quickly.
The natural starting point for building this team would be to partner with DHS’s Silicon Valley Innovation Program (SVIP). SVIP acts as an entry point for emerging companies whose work relates back to agency missions. For example, SVIP has funded companies working on enhancing CBP airport passenger processing, improving the Global Travel Assessment System (GTAS) and advancing Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) capabilities. The advantage of SVIP’s model is that it is easily approachable by small companies with little federal government experience. They have simplified the funding process so that companies can be awarded funding of up to $200,000 (initially) within 45 days.
Up to this point, the Coast Guard has not worked with SVIP, presenting an exciting partnership opportunity. Securing OT authority will require an act of Congress, and while the Coast Guard is pursuing this, SVIP presents an opportunity to gain experience with how to leverage the acquisitions method. As an immediate first step, the service should assign one officer to the DHS SVIP this year to explore the benefits that Silicon Valley offers. A key advantage with taking this first step is its low cost. SVIP already has a “brick and mortar” presence, meaning the Coast Guard would only need to cover the expenses for a single officer assigned to the unit. This Silicon Valley liaison would work to understand how the Coast Guard can leverage OT authority, and network throughout the region to understand which companies are most relevant for Coast Guard missions.
Driving Future Innovation
With a host of other government agencies establishing a presence in Silicon Valley, the Coast Guard has an opportunity to join them. RDC-SV will not happen overnight, but there are several steps the Coast Guard can take now to lay the foundation for this program. The Coast Guard should request OT Authority and leverage it quickly to incorporate new technologies into its operational framework. It should assign an officer to the DHS Silicon Valley Innovation Program office. And it should begin the effort to establish its own R&D office in Silicon Valley, modeled after DIU and SVIP.
Innovation and operational relevance are intimately intertwined. For decades, the Coast Guard’s R&D framework has persistently advanced the service’s operational capabilities. Thousands of people owe their lives to the RDC’s noble work. Today, with a slew of emerging trends coming into the Coast Guard’s focus—cybersecurity, unmanned systems, and autonomous vessels, to name a few—investing in a culture of innovation and an office in Silicon Valley will pay dividends for generations to come.