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2021 Year in Review: National security technology research

April 5, 2022

Over the past few years, the push for modernization within the national security and defense sector has ramped up significantly. From revamping defense research and development priorities to creating a new overarching role at the Pentagon to oversee digital innovation efforts, there are a number of initiatives and changes taking place to create alignment across the enterprise and present a united front in modernization efforts moving forward.

And for good reason. With cybersecurity and military threats posed by China and Russia on the rise, there's a clear need for change across both government and commercial entities in the national security space to re-shape the way they operate and prepare for the ever more complex competitive landscape. As part of this wide scale transformation, understanding, protecting, and leveraging critical technology capabilities will be key to maintaining relevance in the 21st Century.

Here at Second Front Systems, we continuously monitor and conduct deeper research on these technologies—and the ecosystems that develop them—on behalf of our national security customers. By no means exhaustive, read on for a highlight of a few of the topics we covered in 2021 and some samples of our work.


Adaptive Learning

Adaptive learning is evolving the way automated and software-based learning approaches function. Pre-programmed pathways are becoming more responsive to learners' needs using big data and statistical analysis. At its most advanced, adaptive learning is leveraging Artificial Intelligence (AI, discussed in more detail, below) through which educational materials can be adapted in real time to learners, though the technology remains in early stages of development. 

Defined broadly, the segment can also include recommendation algorithms to identify relevant learning opportunities or chatbots to provide responsive support to students. Such innovations are also supported by a wide-range of applications within the educational software space to make learning more engaging, including extended learning environments into workflows through augmented reality or integration with collaboration tools like Slack. 

Effectively training US Department of Defense (DoD) and other national security personnel in all corners of the globe across a wide-variety of missions has always been an important challenge—one that is now more critical than ever in the face of rapidly changing demands on the workforce and the integration of new technologies at a more rapid pace. Emerging technologies require continuous up-skilling and re-skilling of the workforce, a reality already driving innovation in corporate settings. In addition, the education technology sector has received additional focused attention and investment in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic as so much work and learning became at least temporarily remote.

Additive Manufacturing

Additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3D printing, continues to see rapid advancement, particularly in terms of an ever increasing number of printable materials as well as printing processes. The scale of what can be printed, at what price, and at what quality are all seeing continued improvement with numerous potential applications for defense and national security. Indeed, novel printing processes enable new shapes and structures impossible to manufacture through traditional reductive techniques.

The commercial applications of additive manufacturing have advanced far beyond the printing of plastic novelties to, for instance, Tesla leveraging the technology to print vehicle hulls. Some analysts believe that the 3D printing industry could yield up to $900 billion in economic value within the next decade through a combination of supply chain streamlining, operational improvements, and energy savings due to savings on transportation costs.

DoD too has come to recognize the benefits of additive manufacturing in complex systems, including leveraging the technology to prototype a jointless hull for the next generation combat vehicle program. The use of 3D printing in current and future military platforms promises to not only drive down costs due to the more efficient use of materials—and metals in particular—relative to traditional techniques, but also enable new approaches to enduring design challenges.

Artificial Intelligence

Deemed by some as humanity’s “final invention,” the rapid progress in AI continued apace in 2021 with milestones such as DeepMind open-sourcing AlphaFold, which has successfully predicted the three-dimensional shapes of proteins - a historic obstacle in the field of biology. Furthermore, AI remains a critical technology for national security as highlighted in the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI) 2021 Final Report. AI has the potential to touch most technology domains of interest to national security in one way or another, from autonomous systems to logistics and inventory management. Among those we examined this year included natural language processing (NLP) and computer vision (CV). 

NLP trains AI to better mimic, understand, and communicate with humans through improving AI understanding of nuances, implied meanings, and context. NLP has gained popularity particularly in the commercial sector as a means to augment business practices and improve personable technologies like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. Given the complexities involved with advancing NLP, tech titans like Google and Microsoft have taken the lead on developing the technology. But DoD has also taken a keen interest with NLP programs hosted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Army, and the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) which focus on assisting service members with everything from improving cross-cultural interactions overseas to developing policy memo analysis tools.

CV has perhaps even more profound applications for national security. A subfield of AI that enables computers to process visual inputs into data and usable information for machine learning algorithms, CV has the potential to transform everything from autonomous systems to speeding and improving the processing of every growing archive of surveillance footage, one of the first tasks of Project MAVEN.

Biotechnology

Biotechnology is a broad term that describes the products of a suite of powerful new tools in the field of synthetic biology. These tools include the use of microorganisms and gene editing processes in manufacturing for products that range from fuel to pharmaceuticals to new agricultural products. The astoundingly rapid development of vaccines in the face of the pandemic brought synthetic biology into the spotlight in 2020 and 2021, and investment has followed. CB Insights identified 64 venture capital raises in the synthetic biology space alone in 2021 as of mid-December, totaling $4.3 billion and representing 64% growth from the prior year. 


One of the largest deals went to PivotBio, a synthetic biology company focused on the development of nitrogen fertilizers. It raised $430 million in July of 2021 and is now valued at nearly $2 billion. 

Developments in synthetic biology are bolstered by incredible computational tools that bring scale to the lab bench through simulation and analysis. These computational technologies utilize the now vast and growing stockpiles of biological data to drive innovation and investors are taking notice. Benchling, developer of a bioinformatics platform designed to accelerate research and development, saw a major investment of $200 million and is now valued at over $6 billion. 

These developments taken together represent truly revolutionary capabilities, some of which are available today and most of which remain to be productized due to significant challenges facing scaled manufacture—not to mention regulatory and ethical considerations. Nonetheless, the implications of new, potentially more distributed, and improved methods of manufacturing as well as the vast troves of knowledge these technologies are unlocking have broad implications for national security. The potential threats—from the traditional concerns of biosecurity to the potential misuse of personal biological data—are only just now being explored.

Blockchain

Blockchains are digitally distributed ledgers or records of exchanges conducted across a decentralized network of computers. The assets traced and documented on a blockchain need not be digital currency; the status and history of both digital or physical items—like shipping containers or agricultural products—can also be recorded on a blockchain. Growing experimentation and adoption in sectors beyond cryptocurrency are as varied as healthcare and insurance, election security, education, gaming and entertainment, supply chain management, and traditional lending continue to demonstrate blockchain’s diverse applicability in environments where transparency is necessary, but trust between partners is lacking. The U.S. government is also exploring blockchain’s potential national security applications, like secure messaging, data management and security, and supply chain integrity. 

Though investment projections for the technology look promising for the years ahead, blockchain’s ability to disrupt and transform traditional sectors remains an open question. While the blockchain sector raised more from venture capital and private equity investors in the first half of 2021 than in any prior full year, for example, the outlook for enterprise blockchain solutions remains murky following the reorganization and/or shuttering of two major blockchain-as-a-service offerings in 2021. Despite these developments, experts anticipate upticks in blockchain’s convergence with other emerging technology areas, like artificial intelligence and the internet of things (IoT), to pick up in coming years, as well as the expansion of tailored advancements for supply chain, financial services, and other sectors.

Climate Tech

The term “climate tech” encompasses a diverse swath of solutions aimed at slowing or counteracting climate change. Given this broad definition, the technologies under this umbrella affect numerous sectors, such as power, transportation, agriculture, heavy industry, and the built environment. Six cross-cutting concepts help categorize innovations in the space, many of which have either direct or indirect relevance to national security operations, including the right-sizing of manufacturing and optimization of production to reduce waste, the conservation and greening of energy, the development of sustainable product lifecycles, the creation of advanced materials and chemicals, remediation methods like geo-engineering and carbon capture, and water conservation. 

While the clean tech bust in the early 2010s spooked many investors away from the field, funding and interest in climate tech solutions have been on the rise again in recent years—and show no signs of slowing down. In fact, venture capital firms pumped a record amount of funding into climate tech companies in 2021, with big tech-run climate funds, the government, and public interest surging as well. While much of this uptick can be attributed to growing urgency over global warming, shifts and advancements in the underlying technologies themselves have also played a role. For example, the sector is increasingly combining more traditional hardware elements with software services, lowering cost barriers and expanding accessibility. Similarly, costs for a broad range of technologies are crossing into cost parity with traditional technologies, and major technical barriers have been overcome in technologies such as carbon capture and storage in 2021.

Edge Computing

Edge computing refers to the ability to collect, compute or process, and store data locally or near the source of data generation as opposed to in a cloud environment. Edge computing has gained popularity because it lessens reliance on costly and often vulnerable data centers while also reducing latency because all the data is physically closer together. These attributes make edge computing critical to the emergence of the internet of things (IoT)—the growing network of connected devices from wearable fitness trackers to autonomous vehicle sensors—because it allows for quicker data processing which is necessary for algorithms making quick decisions. 

On the flip side, edge computing can also pose a cybersecurity risk because the data localization means that the data is only as secure as the devices that it runs on—a major problem since many IoT devices are not designed with robust cybersecurity in mind. Regardless, edge computing adoption is on the rise; recent predictions project that while only 10% of enterprise-generated data is processed at the edge, by 2025, this figure will hit 75%.

Edge computing has become a keen interest of the national security community. The defense research agency DARPA has had multiple projects dedicated to edge computing including CBMEN and EdgeCT which aimed to improve warfighter access to wireless networks. More broadly in the defense space, edge computing can quicken decision making due to its low latency characteristics which is increasingly necessary as the speed of war also quickens with the adoption of tools like drones and automated weaponry, and is of particular interest for contested electromagnetic and what DoD calls disrupted, intermittent, and limited (DIL) connectivity environments.

Generative Design

Design and simulation remain some of the most invisible spaces to the broader public but nonetheless an important source of innovation. One of the many technologies in this space is generative design, a computational tool which takes user-given parameters and produces novel designs. It is frequently paired with additive manufacturing for rapid prototyping and to expand the slate of possible design approaches due to additive manufacturing’s unique capabilities. Taken together, these technologies can dramatically reduce materials and waste, reduce development time, and result in a more efficient product. 

In 2021 there have been several high profile generativity designed parts as well as major cuts in the price of software from major players in the industry such as Autodesk. Investment in the sector continues with nTopology receiving $65 million in Series D financing from, valuing the company at $400 million. The technique is seeing uptake particularly in automotive and aerospace applications, industries that are closely intertwined with national security interests. Nonetheless, the technology is not yet widely deployed.

Microelectronics

Microelectronics—the semiconductors that underlie ever more of all day-to-day life—have been one of the most prominent supply chain shortages of 2021. Even before the shortages began, the ever mounting expense of building modern fabs and geopolitical tensions were particularly pronounced in the sector. Meanwhile, debates concerning the impending (or arguably already reached) end of Moore’s Law continued to intensify amidst ever mounting difficulties sustaining the once iron-clad cadence that defined the entire industry. As the microelectronics industry continues to consolidate, the United States must reckon with the fact that most microelectronics are processed overseas––a critical supply chain vulnerability. 

This reality also brings into question the ability to “trust” that chips used in sensitive technologies such as fighter jets and military communication devices have not been compromised during manufacturing. As a result, the U.S. government continues to look into “zero trust” approaches (using chips that are assumed to be compromised) such as through DARPA’s SAHARA program, and to invest heavily in building out the domestic microelectronics industry. Relevant U.S. government actions include the May 12, 2021 Executive Order on Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity and U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) passed in May 2021 which allocates billions of dollars to strengthening applied scientific research domestically including the construction of microelectronics production infrastructure.

Supply Chain Risk Management

The first major supply chain disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic hit in January 2020 in the wake of the lockdown in Wuhan, a major manufacturing hub with a population of 11 million people. This was only the first of many major disruptions that elevated supply chain risk management (SCRM) from a niche to a major topic of concern. Investment in logistics technology skyrocketed in 2020 and 2021 and this segment is no exception. One of the technical leaders in the space, Interos, raised $100 million (as well as additional undisclosed financing) in Series C capital, bringing its' valuation to $1 billion. Many corporations turned to SCRM software which can cover a broad range of activities including mapping of suppliers, risk identification, monitoring for incidents, analysis, mitigation support, and longer term planning for building resilience and agility. 

Some of the most advanced systems integrate information on supplier financials, weather, geopolitical risk, and even sustainability initiatives, although even the largest companies still struggle to fully understand their full supplier base, particularly beyond the first couple tiers. Logistics are crucial to national security whether in support of the military—which often utilizes commercial transport—or the larger economic health of the nation, making these developing tools of prime interest to government users.

Conclusion

In 2022, as the government seeks to build a stronger industrial base, protecting and securing the future of these technologies while adopting those with near-term applications will be key to keeping up with the demands of an ever-evolving national security landscape.

From blockchain's applications in areas like secure messaging and supply chain integrity to climate tech's wide umbrella of technologies geared toward addressing climate change, there's near limitless potential for their impact on defense and national security missions.



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