DRDC's new innovation strategy to create new institutes and adopt DARPA-inspired challenge approach to procurement

Mark Henderson
December 21, 2016

Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) is preparing to unveil a DARPA-style approach to meeting the innovation requirements of the armed forces. Set to rollout April 1/17, the as-yet-unnamed initiative aims to tap a far greater share of academic research than it currently does and recognizes that its internal R&D capacity is inadequate to meet the full range of future needs.

The first step includes the creation of an Institute for Research in Defence and Security. There will also be targeted calls for proposals to tap the deep expertise resident in academic institutions in Canada and eventually abroad, which DRDC hopes will lead to faster procurement for companies.

The decision to launch a completely different approach to science, technology and innovation (STI) comes as DRDC continues to grapple with reduced internal R&D capacity stemming from the budget cuts delivered through the previous government's cost-cutting measures.

"Like others, the Deficit Reduction Action Plan led to a significant reduction in our budget ($32 million). At the same time, we came to the realization that there is much more innovation happening outside our labs. We're re-thinking the way we provide solutions to the forces and defence and security communities," says Dr Marc Fortin, DRDC's CEO and ADM S&T of the Department of National Defence. "This led us to a new direction that is more focussed on leveraging innovations investments in Canada and elsewhere."

The roll-out next year will include several other new initiatives including an ideation lab where external researchers are asked to find solutions to problems and a "sand box" space where projects are developed and technologies can be demonstrated and products tested. Such an approach to innovation marks a reversal of the traditional DRDC practice of awarding research contracts with specific technological requirements spelled out.

Fortin says the template for posing problems rather than specifying solutions draws upon the successful approach honed by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which seeks to achieve transformational rather than incremental technological change.

"The institutes are a first step towards a much more ambitious innovation initiative. We're building the tools, instruments and programs to tap into the innovation ecosystem writ largeā€¦ It's an important change in the equation for us," says Fortin. "Time and cost equations are not in our favour as our adversaries tend to be faster ... It's a holistic research program where some projects will go to DRDC and others to academia, depending on the level of sensitivity and expertise required. We're putting a lot of time and effort into this."

With an annual budget of $275 million DRDC maintains eight regional research centres and a staff of 1420 (down from 1560 prior to 2012), including 800 scientists. Fortin says internal research capacity needs to be augmented to capture the benefits innovation.

"S&T is too limiting. We're looking for new processes and approaches," he says. "

Inaugural Institute

The first institute to be launched will the Centre for Human System Performance. A February 27th workshop in Toronto will host academic and private sector researchers whose work may be of use to the armed forces and security personnel.The areas of focus are: sensory, memory and cognitive performance; physiological human performance; human capabilities with the use of robots and autonomous devices; and, ethics (biomedical, gaming, human optimization).

The institute structure will allow academic researchers to work at DRDC labs on problems that are sensitive or classified and can't be conducted externally. Projects could also include research that agencies such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council may not be willing or able to support.

Current DRDC collaborative
activities with academia

  • Contributions in-kind towards a common objective (collaborative agreements)
  • Cost-shared initiatives in pursuing a common science and technology objective
  • Exchanges of personnel at the cost of the parent employer
  • External academic activities by DRDC's scientists such as: adjunct professorships, research associates, honorary research associates and teachers
  • Student employment via the Federal Students Work Experience Program
  • College and university co-op programs
  • Research Affiliate Program

"We'll share the problem space with academic stakeholders and how we see the gaps. This is what DARPA does. They don't specify the nature of the solution," says Fortin. "We'll ask the experts to come forward with projects the following year. First we'll cut our teeth doing this at the national level and then internationally. The UK, for instance, shares similar problems to ours. It's a work in progress."

Similarly, the ideation lab slated to open next year is designed to develop and access different solutions to a problem or challenge. Fortin says DRDC will "provide significant support for projects that will further develop those ideas", sharing the technological risk in project selection and funding in the hopes of achieving rapid execution.

S&T domains of interest for
greater external partner

Physical sciences: physical protection, energetic materials and systems, platform performance (through-life maintenance aspects)

Electromagnetic sciences: sensor data exploitation and fusion

Information sciences: information systems for command and control

Health sciences: human performance

Social and behavioural sciences: human systems integration, learning and training; operational research and analysis: operational research/operational analysis force development/concepts development and experimentation/concepts development

"Take, for example, drone countermeasures. We can offer space where we would fly drones and invite people to come in and take them down. Canadian companies can test their products," he says.

Calls for Proposals

Further augmenting DRDC's new innovation strategy is the increasing use of targetted calls for proposals (CFPs) which present challenges rather than technological requirements.

The latest CFPs for two programs are the All Domain Situational Awareness (ADSA) and Canadian Safety and Security Program. The ADSA program is budgetted at $133 million over five years and targets technologies required for air and maritime surveillance.

"We present a problem and a number of challenges," says Fortin. "It's really different from the old contract research approach where we define the solutions."

Fortin says a recent space-focused CFP for the Defence Innovation Research Program generated "absolutely exciting proposals".

"They offer solutions we could not generate ourselves. We were thrilled to see the quality of projects," he says.


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