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My Coast Guard
Commentary | Nov. 17, 2020

Operation Innovation: Partnering with the Defense Innovation Unit

The Coast Guard Research, Development, Test & Evaluation (RDT&E) and Innovation Program is increasing the service’s access to innovative technologies through a partnership with the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU). In response to a memorandum of understanding between the Coast Guard and DIU, the program is fielding a contingent at DIU to gain insight and increase coordination on mutual interests involving research, prototype, test, evaluation and acquisition of commercial technologies.Defense Innovation Unit liaison Cmdr. Michael Nordhausen and Ensign Sarah Levesque, a Coast Guard certified drone operator from the Sector San Francisco Enforcement Division, conduct evaluations of blue small unmanned aircraft system technology. Photo courtesy of Defense Innovation Unit.

DIU was founded by the Department of Defense (DoD) as an experimental unit in 2015 to focus on fielding and scaling commercial technology across the U.S. military at commercial speeds. DIU has the authority to use streamlined processes to rapidly prototype commercially available technology for DoD use. Their aim is to move from problem identification to prototype contract award in 60-90 days rather than the 18 plus months that is typical under traditional DoD contracting processes.

“The DIU can provide the Coast Guard tremendous value with its access to commercial technology, rapid prototyping, and ability to scale and partner with other services to lower costs,” said Cmdr. Michael J.B. Nordhausen, the active duty Coast Guard liaison. “Additionally, we can bring novel Coast Guard problems and issues to DIU, and leverage commercial solutions to best solve problems unique to the Coast Guard.”

DIU is comprised of about 70 full-time equivalent active duty and reserve members of all services, as well as civilians. It has locations in America’s innovation hubs of Silicon Valley, Boston, and Austin as well as in the Pentagon. Current focus areas include artificial intelligence (AI), autonomy, cyber, human systems, space, and advanced energy and materials.

Four Coast Guard reserve members – Capt. Kim Guedry, Lt. Felix Bustos, Chief Petty Officer Michael Anderson and Petty Officer 1st Class Mark Stevenson – have joined Nordhausen at DIU this month.

One of the first projects Nordhausen identified as potentially useful for the Coast Guard involves small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS). Federal law prohibits the DoD from acquiring or operating sUAS or drones manufactured by Chinese companies or containing components or systems manufactured in China. Since these prohibitions apply to the majority of commercially available solutions, DIU leveraged technology developed for the Army Program of Record effort, called Short Range Reconnaissance. The follow-on effort called Blue sUAS has five secure, approved drones, all National Defense Authorization Act-compliant, that are now available on the General Services Administration schedule for the other services and other government agencies to purchase.

Nordhausen is also involved in exploring an AI and machine-learning project that aims to rapidly detect illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing using publicly available imagery from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel satellites. This technology solution has the potential to improve the effectiveness of Coast Guard operations through improved monitoring and detection of illicit activity.

These efforts directly align with the Coast Guard Strategic Plan 2018-2022, which highlights the game-changing opportunities presented by rapidly advancing technology and states the Coast Guard will evaluate emerging technologies, capitalize on DoD research and development efforts, and pursue opportunities to leap from existing technologies and competencies to new capabilities. 

“To the greatest extent possible, the Coast Guard needs to leverage its relationships with expert organizations such as DIU to make great technological leaps and maximize its return on investment,” Nordhausen said.

"DIU’s momentum is increasing as we celebrate our 5th anniversary. We are doing double the number of projects we did two years ago with all branches of the U.S. military including the Space Force. We are enthused to expand this further with the Coast Guard,” said DIU director Mike Brown.