Microsoft, DoD sign research and development pact


The company may have the chance to negotiate exclusive intellectual property rights—with an exception for the government—to innovations emerging from the collaboration.

Military officials from the Naval Postgraduate School and representatives from Microsoft say a new contract to explore technology in four cyber research areas is a sweet deal for everyone.

“This allows us to let Microsoft inside of our problem space, and allow them to go out and build better things that will serve the military … and allies, for export, so that the collective international security enterprise is stronger,” said Col. Randy Pugh, NPS Senior Marine and Deputy Director of the Naval Warfare Studies Institute, “Also, dual use, working the other direction, there may be things that we have thought about or have invented together that can be used by the general public.”

Pugh spoke during an event Microsoft held for the media Thursday in advance of the partners’ announcement Monday. Also speaking were NPS’ dean of research Kevin Smith and director of the Center for Cyber Warfare Commander Chad Bollman, and from Microsoft: Marc Langlois, senior director for the US Navy portfolio, and Mark Dowd, a principal investigator for the cooperative research initiative. 

The Naval Postgraduate School is a Navy command with access to military facilities, where the initiative is being supported by the Navy and the Marine Corps. Microsoft will get access to those facilities—and revamp them to include an on-campus innovation lab—to explore cloud networking, create a geographically flexible smart campus, study potential military applications for gaming, modeling and simulation and to faster integrate new applications, the partners said.   

“There is no downside to this because, you know, national security is strengthened, international security is strengthened,” Pugh said. “The defense industrial base as well as American industry is strengthened.”     

Microsoft’s Langlois added exploration of offerings like Azure Orbital—which the company has been marketing to government agencies for more than a year—and others will also benefit non-military applications, in fields like smart agriculture, for example, by providing a “decision advantage.” 

“When's the right time to plow? When's the right time to water? What sort of nutrients do we need and that sort of thing, so the intelligent edge is pervasive, not only military, in nature,” he said. “This gives us an opportunity to prove that we can try and help derive that decision advantage.”

According to a March 2021, Azure Government blog post, Azure Orbital “provides the ability to communicate reliably and securely with satellites in multiple orbits, at multiple frequency bands, and with multiple satellite communication vendors. Government customers can select the service best suited for their theater, coalition and operational needs.”

The contract with NPS is a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement. CRADAs were congressionally authorized in 1980. The goal was to encourage commercialization of  government-funded technology as industry’s collective investment in research and development was starting to overtake the government’s. But in this case, the military partners want to see how technology that is already commercially viable can be applied in advancing its capabilities.  

“Intelligent autonomous systems, artificial intelligence, certainly, big data and the ability to do data engineering and data science and to have machines or computers assisting the humans in making decisions …all of those kinds of things are very immature right now in the services,” Pugh said. “But [they] are both mature and exponentially maturing in the commercial sector, driven by competitive marketplaces where people, in order to maintain that position and, you know, and serve their shareholders are coming up with all of these groundbreaking inventions.” 

According to the NPS press release, “the goal is to leverage the latest in commercial technologies and expertise to advance Navy and Marine Corps operations, while sharing any insights gained with the broader public.” 

The Microsoft-NPS CRADA will allow the company and the government, including non-Defense agencies, to freely license any innovations that are jointly derived, according to Bollman, who said whether others will be able to license the tech is still to be determined.

“Within the way that CRADA’s work for intellectual property or co-discovery that we do— no-kidding—together, Microsoft gets a legal right to basically leverage that and license it from the government cost-free going forward,” Bollman said. “Now, whether or not that right is exclusive or not, that's subject to subsequent negotiations. But because the government was also a partner in this discovery, then the government agencies and the other you know, the other parts of the federal government—no-kidding—also get to use that, whatever it is that we discover, cost-free as well. So it totally turns into a win-win.”

The NPS officials were excited by the prospect of all manner of potential ultimate developments from the partnership, from the further-off—autonomous vehicle safety—to the seemingly more mundane: solutions for human resources.

“Inside of each one of those [four research areas] campuses of the future, for example, there's a long list of sub projects underneath of that, things like, you know, talent management based on LinkedIn, and the uncanny way that it presents people that I might want to invite to my network,” Pugh said. “Man, I would love to have that in the military for our talent management purposes. And so this allows us to understand the technology and the techniques and then be able to lift and drop those onto the military, quickly and efficiently.”

But the way innovations are derived, and who’s bringing what to the table, isn’t always carefully mapped out or easily determined. In January, a federal circuit court ruled in favor of an appellate that was suing the government for using technology it says was already proven before the execution of a CRADA, which the government didn’t opt to follow with a purchase of the tech in prototype.

“The [NPS-Microsoft] CRADA has legal protections relative to knowledge that existed before the CRADA relationship started,” Bollman said, with the disclaimer that he is not authorized to dispense legal advice.

With competitors like AWS and Google fighting for space in the government’s market for cloud services, CRADAs are giving Microsoft insightful access to the government’s digital environment, and a chance to expand their offerings.

“I think Microsoft has some ideas, they see things that could help the military and the military is not asking for them,” Pugh said. “This CRADA gives the ability to bring those things in and work on them, you know, military solutions being driven from the Microsoft side, which is pretty cool.”