Naval Research Lab leans on industry partnership to drive innovation

The Naval Research Lab provided the tools to diagnose issues on the USS Gerald Ford aircraft carrier.

The Naval Research Lab provided the tools to diagnose issues on the USS Gerald Ford aircraft carrier.

NRL's commanding officer Capt. Jesse Black highlights the lab's focus on basic research and big-picture challenges.

The vast majority of research-and-development work takes place in private industry, so the Naval Research Lab relies on collaboration and partnerships with industry to fulfill the Navy's R&D needs.

Some data shows that 97% of R&D spending takes place in the private sector with just 3% happening in the Defense Department. Capt. Jesse Black, the Navy lab’s command officer, brings up those figures that can make some wonder if tracking R&D by the government is worthwhile, said

“That’s the wrong way to look at it,” Blacks told attendees of our March 8 Washington Technology Power Breakfast on doing business with the Navy.

Military labs like the NRL have different motivations than those that are financially driven in the private sector that Black said "I love."

“We don’t have that same charter. We have to make science and technology happen for our mission set,” he said.

The NRL has 2,700 government employees and 1,300 contractor employees. Its focus is on basic research to look at large complex problems. Industry has more of a product focus.

But Black said the differing approaches are complimentary as "it takes a team and an organization that understands this."

Black served at the Naval Sea Systems Command for a decade before he joined the NRL. That threats are growing at an accelerated pace, so Black said how the Navy brings innovation to meet those threats needs to change as well.

“We don’t need to be playing this chase game,” Black said. “We need to be ahead of it.”

The NRL is focused on big picture challenges such as climate change and understanding its impact on ocean currents, which in turn impacts undersea warfare for example. Space and cyber are other focus areas.

“It comes back to basic science, basic chemistry, basic physics, because understanding the principles of where those things are at is very important,” Black said.

The NRL's partnership with industry is where tools such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and quantum computing come in.

Those are the tools that will unlock what Black called “boxes” of innovation.

“There’s a chemistry equation inside of corrosion that scientists have known about for decades but they’ve always said this is an unsolvable equation,” he said in offering another example.

But with quantum computing, scientists think they can unlock the equation of corrosion.

The NRL has seven areas of focus for its research:

  • Undersea warfare
  • Materials and chemistry
  • Space research and technology
  • Electromagnetic warfare
  • Electronics
  • Battlespace environments
  • Information Technology

There are opportunities for collaboration and partnership in each of those areas and "everything leads downstream from there,” Black said.

The lab holds what Black called innovation days where industry can meet with the lab and exchange ideas.

“If you see a fit with what you do, you write a proposal back to the group and you get an invite to a collaborative meeting at the research lab,” Black said.

The collaboration also includes bringing problems in need of a solution to the lab.

One example Black likes to bring up is the weapons elevator on the USS Gerald Ford aircraft carrier had a fatigue issue. The ship would vibrate at a frequency that was causing the lift to fail.

The shipbuilder was working on it, but it wasn’t until Adm. Rick Williamson was visiting the lab and was giving a demo of how the lab could wrap any mechanical in fiber optics to measure the stresses the devices undergoes. That turned out to be the perfect tool for diagnosing the weapons elevator issue, he said.

“You guys out there are trying to figure something out, give the research lab a try,” Black said.