NRAC calls for 'Shark Tank' program, venture capital firm for Navy to keep autonomy edge

By Justin Katz  / January 10, 2018

The Navy should take several steps, such as creating a venture capital firm and an internal "Shark Tank" program, to ensure its autonomy capabilities stay ahead of its adversaries, according to a new report by a Navy advisory panel.

A Naval Research Advisory Committee report, released Jan. 8, on the service's use of autonomous and unmanned systems warns that "while the U.S. may currently have the advantage in autonomous systems, our adversaries are catching up. In some technical areas, our adversaries may already be ahead."

One of the recommendations to counter this is the Navy stand up a venture capital firm with $30 million as a way to encourage Silicon Valley to help solve Defense Department problems. The report contends the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, an established DOD program with similar goals, has "done little to encourage start-ups to work with DOD" and is "very slow to actually allocate funds."

The report also suggests a "Shark Tank" approach to funding innovative ideas. The television show "Shark Tank" features entrepreneurs pitching their business ideas to a group of venture capitalists who are prepared to invest immediately.

For the Navy's purposes, the venture capitalists would be "a combination of five successful [Defense Advanced Research Project Agency/Office of Naval Research] program managers, systems command engineers, fleet representatives, and non-Navy venture capitalists," the report states. The non-Navy personnel would help to ensure the process "does not get captured by the legacy establishment."

The "Shark Tank" panel should make decisions within a week of receiving proposals and those decisions would not be subject to review by the naval establishment, the report states.

The report further recommends the Navy not take a "one-size-fits-all" approach to verification, validation and accreditation.

"In the future, where autonomous learning systems supplant human operations, VV&A becomes extremely critical and more difficult to achieve," the report states. "Traditional VV&A processes are not applicable for future systems that incorporate learning algorithms." Therefore, NRAC recommends the Navy create a research program to develop tools and processes for VV&A of learning systems.

The report also recommends the Navy more frequently use other transaction authority and create a comprehensive data plan to field autonomous systems.

During a public Jan. 8 NRAC meeting at the Pentagon, the committee confirmed that Navy Secretary Richard Spencer was briefed on the committee's recommendations and the final report would be sent to his office for review.

A Navy secretary spokesman declined to comment on the recommendations.