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

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?
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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