Defense/Aero Spinoffs Remain an Exceptional Source for Breakthrough Technology

Display portlet menu

Defense/Aero Spinoffs Remain an Exceptional Source for Breakthrough Technology

Display portlet menu

Defense/Aero Spinoffs Remain an Exceptional Source for Breakthrough Technology

Airplane making a landing on the runway at dusk

Enactment of the Budget Control Act of 2011, aka “the sequester,” is going to gut the United States military and endanger the current and future technological superiority of our armed forces. At least that’s the hyperbole we hear from Capitol Hill and the mainstream media. Fortunately, these cuts are only part of the story.

Yes, automatic across the board cuts within the Department of Defense (DoD) will put the squeeze on many within the defense/aerospace supply chain. The continued decline of defense budgets also means that contractors and suppliers are going to have to learn to do more with less to keep America safe and competitive. But, let’s not forget the billions of dollars the government continues to invest each year into the research and development of advanced defense/aerospace technologies.

According to the FY2014 Budget Request, $67 billion dollars will be allocated to research development test and evaluation (RDT&E) from the base defense budget of $526.6 billion. These funds will support defense strategy through basic and applied scientific research in new and emerging technologies. Another $11.9 billion has been set aside for the DoD’s Science and Technology Program, and $2.9 billion for the “high-payoff” research done by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – the group most widely known for bringing us the Internet.

To me, that’s the part of the story we should focus on. It’s through these programs that some of the most influential commercial, industrial and medical product advancements of our time have gotten their start, including cellular phones, personal computing, jet engines, GPS and medical imaging.

Every day companies in the technology community make decisions about how to position their businesses to capitalize on the “next big thing” in high-tech electronics. I believe that a closer look at federally-funded investments in defense/aerospace research and development (R&D) could not only uncover prospects to sell more components and services into the defense sector, but also identify potential spinoff opportunities.

So, let’s take a look at some of the projects and technologies currently in the pipeline that could be influential to the electronics supply chain in the years to come.

Let me preface this discussion with the acknowledgment that I’m not a technologist. Any of the following speculations are based solely on my professional observations and experience, not my knowledge of any proprietary information.​


Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, are a great example of how a military-developed technology can transition into the civilian sector. Modern drones have become a critical component of U.S. military’s reconnaissance and strike missions over the past decade, and were reportedly central to the CIA’s tracking of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Since FY2000, DoD spending on UAVs has increased from $284 million to $3.3 billion in FY2010, and drones now account for 31% of all military aircraft, according to 2012 Congressional Research Report on U.S. Unmanned Aerial Systems.

Of course, drone technology like the MQ-1 Predator with its 48-ft. wingspan and $4M+ price tag requires some substantial reengineering to achieve a device of a size and cost that would be feasible in civilian applications, such as police surveillance and corporate security. (See United States Air Force 2011 Budget report.) But it can, and has, been done.

Another highly promising, and somewhat surprising, use for drones outside defense is in the agriculture sector. Earlier this year, in an interview with Wired magazine, Chris Mailey, vice president of the drone promotion organization Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), was quoted as saying that agriculture “is going to be the big market” for drones. By enabling more efficient land surveying and precision crop spraying, drones can help farmers lower costs and increase productivity.

Also on the horizon is a new breed of “micro” drones. DARPA is currently experimenting with micro drones, which simulate the movements of insects and birds to achieve superior flight capabilities. Setting aside the admittedly sticky privacy issues, the commercial possibilities for smaller, faster and cheaper drones are almost limitless. Personally, I can easily imagine a world where automobiles are outfitted with a micro drone that can be launched to scout out traffic conditions, giving drivers a true “eye in the sky.” As a parent, I could also get on board with the idea of having personal drones that can be launched to keep an eye on the kids as they play down the street at the local playground - these days, you really can’t be too cautious.

In addition, current defense research being done with drones could be truly revolutionary in the field of aviation safety. Rockwell Collins is experimenting with an adaptive flight control system that uses sensors and algorithms to detect when a drone sustains catastrophic wing damage, then automatically readjust the aircraft’s aerodynamics to enable it to land safely. Much work is yet to be done to integrate remote controlled and semi-autonomous aircraft into today’s civil aviation scheme, but clearly the opportunity for civil and consumer UAV applications is limited only by imagination.


Another example of government investment with broad implications in the commercial sector is cyberspace. Despite calls to reduce budgets, the DoD’s FY14 budget includes approximately $5 billion for cyberspace operations, up 20% from FY12. These investments reflect the reality of our world today, which is that greatest threats in cyberspace are no longer teenage hackers and social agitators. The cyber world represents the next great battleground between feuding nations. Use of the Internet to “attack” an adversary’s infrastructure, including power and water supply, currency markets or air traffic control is an all-to-real threat. Just ask Iran, hose Natanz nuclear enrichment facility was compromised by the Stuxnet worm in 2010.

As a result, the U.S. government is expending a tremendous amount of resource on developing our nation’s defensive and offensive cyber capabilities. Much of the exact nature of this research is not publicly known, but clearly tools to automate vulnerability detection, network monitoring and analysis and survivability solutions that enable DoD information systems to operate even if they are attacked would be among the top priorities.

One publically-announced program under development by DARPA is the PROgramming Computation on EncryptEd DATA or PROCEED. Considered a “big reach” program, the goal is to deploy “fully holomorphic encryption,” to safeguard assured computations on untrusted hardware by allowing devices to compute with encrypted data without first decrypting it, making it more difficult for malware programmers to write viruses. Whether you are talking about securing highly classified military intelligence, public voting systems or cloud computing, this tech is definitely one to watch.


Among the first documented use of robotics in U.S. defense/aerospace were the robotic arms used on Viking 1 and 2 Mars space probes in 1976 for collecting surface samples. Since then, robotics like the Mars Rover have made international news with the stunning discovery that at one time – albeit billions of years ago – Mars could have supported life.

In defense circles today, robots are more commonly referred to as unmanned vehicles – either aerial (UAVs) such as drones or ground (UGVs) like the Packbot, used for route clearance and improvised explosive device detection and disposal.

While UGVs have proven to be true lifesavers for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, a recent report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on the Role of Autonomy in DoD Systems concluded, “autonomy technology is being underutilized.”

Military leaders are eager for access to autonomous (i.e. not remote controlled) unmanned ground vehicles to perform tasks including reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition as well as logistics and cargo transportation. To meet this demand, the DoD’s FY 2014 budget includes approximately $300 million for the development of systems that perform complex military missions in dynamic environments.

One such program currently under development is a semi-autonomous four-legged robot called the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), which is designed to carry heavy loads for dismounted troops in the field. The current LS3 prototype from Boston Dynamics, nicknamed AlphaDog, can haul up to 400 lbs. of gear and enough fuel for a 20 mile mission lasting 24 hours. It responds to both visual cues and voice commands, it can navigate rugged terrain and even right itself if it falls over. Another interesting robotic application being tested for ground troops is the HULC robotic exoskeleton, developed by Lockheed Martin. HULC is a hydraulic-powered anthropomorphic exoskeleton worn by troops to ease the burden of carrying heavy combat loads. While there might not be a tremendously wide commercial need for this kind of technology, one company has found a truly commendable application. New Zealand-based Rex Bionics Ltd. has adapted this concept to create a self-supporting robotic exoskeleton called Rex, which enables mobility-impaired and wheelchair-bound individuals to stand, walk and even climb stairs.

Fighting for Our Future

The United States has long enjoyed its leadership position in global technology and innovation, but the dramatic economic growth of China throughout the past decade has many wondering if the U.S. has what it takes to stay on top.

I have no doubt that we do, but to do so will require that we more aggressively exploit the potential that lies right in front of us. The technologies discussed here are clearly only a drop of water in an ocean of innovation springing from defense/aerospace R&D, but they illustrate the vast opportunity for technology transfer and the potential economic multiplier effect of these federally-funded investments. It’s our job, as a technology community, to identify various spinoff opportunities and act quickly and decisively to bring them to market.

Now, I don’t mean to oversimplify the task at hand. Revolutionary ideas rarely jump out and announce themselves and the technology transfer process can be lengthy and costly. However, the payoff, both in terms of corporate revenue and national competitiveness cannot be undervalued.

Ken Gabriel, Deputy Director of DARPA best summed up the significance of federally funded R&D in his February 2012 statement to the United States House of Representatives Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities:

“Some of the Agency’s greatest contributions – things we now take for granted and as having been inevitable – were, at their inception, often considered impossible…But these seemingly impossible things were turned to the improbable and then to the inevitable by people with vision and determination to make their vision real.”

Mil-to-civilian technology transfers have laid the groundwork for the development of some of our nation’s most influential commercial, industrial and medical product advancements, such as cellular phones, personal computing, bar coding and medical imaging.

 The iPhone

The microchips powering the iPhone emerged from U.S. military and space programs, which constituted almost the entire early market for the breakthrough technology in the 1960s.

The foundation of cellular communication lies in radiotelephony capabilities advanced throughout the 20th century with support from the U.S. military.

The technologies underpinning the Internet were developed and funded by the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency in the 1960s and 70s.

GPS was originally created and deployed by the military’s NAVSTAR satellite program in the 1980s and 90s.

One of the best examples of the invisible hand of government funded research in modern society was described in a 2010 report from the Breakthrough Institute entitled “Where Good Technologies Come From: Case Studies in American Innovation”

Defense/Aero Spinoffs Remain an Exceptional Source for Breakthrough Technology

Display portlet menu

Defense/Aero Spinoffs Remain an Exceptional Source for Breakthrough Technology

Display portlet menu
Related Articles
person using tools
IP&E sourcing considerations for developers
August 8, 2019
Designing with IP&E components comes down to more than just simple part selection.
woman looking at tablet on airplane
The Internet of Things at Cruising Altitude: Airlines and the IoT
April 20, 2017
What are your thoughts when you step onto an airplane? “Where’s my seat?” “Is this a Wi-Fi flight?” “I hope I make my connection.”
Defense budget being cut with helicopters falling out of the sky in the background
Defense Cuts Put Squeeze on Mil/Aero Design Chain
March 3, 2017
Cutbacks in U.S. defense spending is putting the squeeze on designers and builders of military, aircraft, aerospace, communications and intelligence equipment.
Hacker trying to do a cyber attack via laptop with Unauthroised Access showing on the screen
DefAero Mitigating Cyber Attacks MCU Hardware Accelerators Boost 2CP
March 3, 2017
Over the years, cyber attacks on financial institutions and news organizations have garnered the lion's share of attention...
Man sitting in an airplane listening to headphones and looking at a tablet
DefAero-New iPad Application Helps Pilots Assess Flying Risks - 2 CP
March 3, 2017
A new application, the iPad Flight Risk Assessment Tool (iFrat), is making it easy for pilots to assess, document and communicate risks in upcoming flights.
Laptop and 3D printer used to create a blue airplane model
3D Printing Maximizes Design Flexibility
March 2, 2017
The aerospace and defense industries have long been developers and early adopters of cutting-edge technology.
Server room with a graphic depiction of the connectivity cloud in the center of the room
32-bit MCUs Penetrate IoT Ecosystem
March 2, 2017
While 8-bit and 16-bit MCUs are well suited for IoT end-node applications, the 32-bit MCU has a key function in the IoT pyramid: It provides the data throughput, reading sensors and sending real-time sensor data over an IP-based network.

Defense/Aero Spinoffs Remain an Exceptional Source for Breakthrough Technology

Display portlet menu
Related Events

No related Events found