Military consumerization spotlight: how DARPA's $45 innovation can save soldiers' lives

Military consumerization spotlight: how DARPA's $45 innovation can save soldiers' lives

Summary: David Gewirtz explores how consumerization scales. Can mixing off-the-shelf parts with unique methodology or secret sauce be used successfully in the world of government and military innovation?


I've been heavily involved in "consumerization" since way before it was a buzzword.

Consumerization is the idea of using commercial, off-the-shelf components to accomplish enterprise-level tasks, usually to both save money and reduce development time. As a boot-strapper, I've repeatedly used what we now call consumerization to give me a competitive advantage.

Back in 1998, when I started ZATZ Publishing, it was the early days of the Internet. Most content publishers who delivered millions of pages a month to readers used substantial server farms and millions of dollars of software (this was before WordPress and blogging). My company used a single iMac and a very efficient piece of software called ZENPRESS to do the same thing.

This, by the way, is one of the keys to consumerization: mix commercial products with some secret sauce or methodology. In the early ZATZ example, the off-the-shelf product was an iMac, and the secret sauce was the code I wrote.

Even today, I use consumerization. The entire ZDNet DIY-IT blog, is, for all intents and purposes, a chronicle of consumerization. I've been writing extensively about the home broadcast studio I built for about $5,000. I've had producers tell me that I've reproduced much of what their quarter-million dollar studios do -- for about 2% of the price.

In the case of the studio, I mixed consumer products with a methodology -- combining just exactly the right consumer products in a very specific way to get commercial-grade broadcasting results.

I've been very curious how consumerization scales. Can the same approach of mixing off-the-shelf parts with unique methodology or secret sauce be used in the world of government and military innovation? After all, nearly all government workers are being asked to do more and more with less and less.

What if that's not a bad thing?

Government projects have usually been monolithic in nature. They're huge, custom endeavors which often have a boatload of restrictions. Many times, government researchers and contractors have to redesign, from scratch, features that have already existed in consumer products. Other times, the time-to-use is so long that by the time a development gets put into use, it's already years obsolete.

Technology now in the hands of consumers has reached a level of power almost unthinkable a few years ago. At the same time, technology like the radiation-shielded RAD750 processor built into the Mars rover Curiosity is far less powerful than today's smartphone.

With budgets under pressure in every agency, many government researchers have looked at ways to leverage the innovation of the private sector, rather than start from scratch with government-funded projects. To that end, my goal is to talk to a variety of government agencies and military organizations and learn how they're taking advantage of commercial, off-the-shelf components.

DARPA's Blast Gauge

One example of this sort of project is called Blast Gauge, developed at DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Here's how DARPA's director, Dr. Arati Prabhakar, describes the project:

DARPA's Blast Gauge is an example of applying COTS to a significant defense problem: traumatic brain injury (TBI). The gauge improves both triage and understanding of brain injury by using COTS sensors, accelerometers, microcontrollers, batteries, and memory -- all of the technology for the gauge is COTS technology. It is a small self-contained system that measures the amount of blast exposure to which a warfighter has been exposed and visibly indicates the relative risk of injury.

Conservative estimates put the number of U.S. warfighters who have experienced TBI at more than 200,000, which makes this a very urgent problem. The Rochester Institute of Technology developed the gauge for DARPA in just 11 months and for a total development cost of approximately $1 million. The resulting $45 per unit device fills an immediate need for accurate measurements for medical teams and a way to find those service members that have been exposed, but failed to report it due to the injury itself or being stoic and wanting to remain in the fight.

Military over-spending has been legendary. It's almost incomprehensible to think that the U.S. military could develop a new piece of warfighting technology for about a million dollars.

For those of you not familiar with military expense, that's an unbelievably low cost and 11 months is an equally incomprehensibly short time for development. On top of that, a per-unit cost of $45 is also highly improbable in a world where a mere coffee pot costs $7,622.

In the case of Blast Gauge, the use of off-the-shelf parts makes the project possible. After all, if the military had to design its own processors, sensors, batteries, and so on from the ground up, the time from concept to design would have been far longer.

Production would, by necessity, also have been much more expensive. After all, economy of scale says it's a lot cheaper to buy an accelerometer chip, for example, that's also used in mainstream smartphones than to tool up a production fabrication environment for just a few thousand chips.

The secret sauce, in this DARPA example, was the design of the Blast Gauge and the software that RIT coded for it – but the huge savings come from the fact that the parts are all available commercially.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that we can “consumerize” all aspects of military innovation. Military needs and consumer opportunities aren't always in sync. This is how DARPA's Prabhakar explains it:

Though COTS electronics is a source of new, high performance technology, it has limitations. Commercial industry -- motivated by profit -- is less interested in developing low unit volume military equipment, such as very high power transmit and receive modules for radars and radios, that the COTS community does not desire nor need.

So DARPA and the US military must continue to design and produce those technologies that provide a tremendous technological advantage to US national security and increase the capability gap with adversaries who cannot afford to do the same.

In other words, VCs and KickStarter fans may be more likely to be interested in investing in new Instagram clones and point-and-click adventure games than a particular part of capability needed by the government for a specific project. That said, it makes tremendous sense for government researchers to use as many off-the-shelf components as possible.

Prabhakar agrees, saying:

The rapid pace of development of technology COTS has introduced commercial computer chips and other products that we have the luxury of using in defense systems to drive down cost, increase production speed and rapidly improve capabilities.

Of course, while the U.S. government and military has cheap and easy access to advanced technology through off-the-shelf components, so do our enemies. I'll look at that in my next ZDNet Government article.

Topics: Consumerization, Government, Government US, Health


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Hey David

    I like your blogs, but I have to disagree with you on this one. Consumerization is the making attainable technologies that had a barrier to entry for most. In a lot of cases that means the cost barrier as technology becomes cheaper. In other cases, it's making the software easier to use so mere mortals can use it. Commoditization is move of technology to common commodity parts for projects. The military is moving towards using commodity parts for projects as a cost savings. Let's hope they have vetted the systems to make sure there are no back doors.
  • further savings

    Just think how much more money we'll save when we stop putting people's heads in blast zones...

    • Robot drones FTW!

  • One issue

    "Commercial industry -- motivated by profit -- is less interested in developing low unit volume military equipment" That of course is absurd. The military (and most government) removes turning a product into a commodity with arcane rules, a bidding process that requires costly staffs and insider knowledge of the process, specifications written by those outside the area of expertise (or outside the area of need).

    Keep in mind, Darpa just developed this, but they haven't actually built and deployed it. Wait until the bureaucrats get a hold of it!
    • Sure it's not the lobbyists?

      Every item in every government budget has a constituency, and the larger the amount of money associated with that item, the harder the constituents will fight for it.
      John L. Ries
    • Congress set it up

      Just remember, it is Congress that set the stage for all these 'arcane' rules relating to DoD contracts. And, those contractors are no less 'motivated by profit'. I see no evidence that Congress has any interest in streamlining (i.e., make less expensive) the procurement process (bureaucracy).
  • Other Examples

    What mid-east country was it that mounted 50 cal machine guns on the beds of mini pickup trucks for successful use in dessert warfare?

    Also, in the 1990's the Israeli air force received US fighters and immediately improved them by glueing three standard auto rearview mirrors inside the canopy. Something like two years and four million dollars of research later, the US followed suit.
  • but conumers are inteested in high power / range radio . . .

    "...such as very high power transmit and receive modules for radars and radios, that the COTS community does not desire nor need. ..."

    maybe not radar
    but how many times in the last 48 hours has yer phone said no service / no signal?

    but voyager, millions of miles away can connect and stay connected
    and I don't have signal in my own house
    Who Am I Really
  • nice article...

    nice angle to look at...
  • OTOH...He Said.

    Keep in mind that at least, for MilSpec purposes, there ARE legitimate "ulterior motives."
    Those include:
    1. Maintaining a 'tech gap' between OTS civilian technology and MilSpec capabilities.
    2. Maintaining a VAST superiority gap between US and foreign tech capabilities.
    3. MilSpec equipment MUST be capable of REALLY NASTY environmental variables - I don't EVER want to go through the kind of testing MilSpec gear suffers (and I DO mean SUFFERS)!

    No, we don't need the infamous $600 toilet seats out of P-3C Orions again - but I also don't want to see a $50 Cell phone being used for secure comms on that P-3, either! Or even a $500 Iridium satellite phone. For multiple reasons, including durability and comm security.
    Not to mention what that poor thing would be like if IT got dropped down that $600 toilet...
  • Some things to keep in mind

    First, DARPA is a fantastic system - a combination think tank, skunkworks, and development process. It's aim is to do thinks, new, different, and better. Sometimes you get the Osprey, sometimes you get the Internet. Perhaps the best illustration of how committed they are to their mission is the heaps of praise and/or loathing they get from every politician without regard to party, or results, or effectiveness, just depending on which way the wind is blowing at that moment.

    Second, all the discussion of military spending. policies, procedures, et al is missing the most important driving force behind most of the arcane and "costly" process: everything has to work - first time, every time. You don't get a second chance against RPGs, AK-47s, and tanks. You have to make sure it's going to work. A $7K coffee pot may be wasteful, but if it's the difference between the pilot of a B2 bomber being alert and awake or nodding off at the controls, it's worth every penny. At least until you can show that the $29 Mr Coffee will work for 72 straight hours at 60,000 feet.