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SPIE DCS Digital Forum: Innovation in aerospace and defense industries

06 May 2020

Dr Michael Noble from L3Harris explains the opportunities and mechanisms for taking part in R&D programs for the A&D sectors.

Innovation is described as “the lifeblood of national defense and the aerospace and defense (A&D) industry in the US” by SPIE DCS Digital Forum plenary speaker Dr Mike Noble, Executive Director – Space in the L3 Harris Patriot Works office. He provides overall strategic leadership within the space domain and across air, space and cyber sectors, and identifies and pursues advanced technology space-related and multi-domain business opportunities for the entire L3 Harris technology company.

L3Harris is an aerospace and defense technology innovator. It provides advanced defense and commercial technologies across air, land, sea, space and cyber domains. The company’s offer is “to bring speed, innovation and flawless execution together with a commitment to make the world more secure.”

Noble opens his presentation with, “Aerospace and defense sectors employ a number of tools in the pursuit of innovation. The process of Internal research and development, IRAD, is the principal tool and IRAD funding is the primary fuel for innovation. Further to this, contracted research and development, CRAD, is also a significant contributor.

“A&D interacts with the academic, research and development, and small business communities to advance their innovation programs. My talk’s aim is to enable better and more mutually beneficial relations between the R&D and A&D communities,” says Noble, adding that, historically, the US Department of Defense has been an “engine of innovation for the nation”, with benefits reaching beyond the military. “The classic example being ARPANET,” he says. “At the time, ARPA, now DARPA's forerunner to the internet.”

Machine learning, AI and sensing

Noble continues, “Now we're witnessing a greater and growing fraction of technologies finding their roots on the commercial side, but with important applications for national security. Machine learning and artificial intelligence are the typical examples. But there are others being driven commercially, including, of particular relevance to this conference, sensing systems, which historically were the exclusive purview of national security. Optical Earth imaging satellites from companies like Planet are most often cited, but others like ICEYE and Hawkeye 360 are fielding commercial radar and signals collection from space, respectively.”

Considering the commercial impact of innovations in the A&D sectors, Noble quotes from the Aerospace Industry Association 2019 Facts and Figures report: “In 2018 alone, the industry contributed over $374 billion to the GDP of the US, representing 1.8% of the entire GDP. With the signing of a two-year budget agreement in summer 2019, the DOD R&D budget grew 29% to a total of $92.3 billion.”

He describes one of the key aims of his presentation at the Digital DCS Forum: “My overall objective is to help you, academia and the research and development community, in your engagements with research sponsors, internship providers, and ultimately, for some, career destinations. I'll consider it a success if A, I don't put you to sleep, and, B, you take at least one piece of information away which helps in your day-to-day work.”

“It's important to note, though, it's not innovation for innovation's sake. Rather, it's to grow the business. Industry leaders have a responsibility to their customers and shareholders, and take this responsibility very seriously. Hence, the investment and focus on innovation is carefully managed from the CEO all the way down in the company to maintain alignment with business goals and objectives.”

US DoD objectives

Then he goes on to explain the links between R&D projects that may be funded and the national (US) objectives: “When considering IRAD and innovation, it's no surprise we derive our priorities from our customers. A great exemplar is the R&E top 10 modernization priorities from Dr. Griffin [Dr. Michael D. Griffin is the US Government’s Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering]. Each company will listen to and engage with seniors and surrogates to understand priorities, and as importantly, customer investments.“

‘War for talent is on’

Noble comments that to achieve the A&D sectors’ innovation objectives, “managing and maintaining the workforce is very important and exceptionally competitive. The A&D industries supported over 2.5 million American jobs in 2018, a 3.7% increase from the previous year. A&D industry jobs are challenging, generally well-paying, involve leading-edge technology and innovation, and allow a form of service and a patriotic mission.”

”Even in times of economic decline, the industry remains a fundamental economic driver. Our appetite for talent has not diminished, and will significantly increase into the future. Most of us have an aging workforce that will have the opportunity to retire over the next five years. Unemployment was at 3.5% prior to recent events with coronavirus, student enrollment at US colleges is down 11% since 2011.

”High school graduation rates are flat, and in some cases, declining due to lower birth rates over the past 20 years. Lastly, and perhaps most painfully as a father of four, college tuition has increased, yet scholarships and aid are not keeping pace. So more students are deciding to go directly to work and bypass getting a college degree. All of these factors conspire against our need for talent.”

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