DOD Working on Brain Stimulation Headgear to Improve Troops' Combat Skills

Susan Jones | July 27, 2016 | 6:13am EDT
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(AP Photo of the human brain)

( - Some U.S. troops will soon be wearing electrical stimulation headgear to see if it improves their combat skills, just as some athletes are now doing.

The headgear is just one of the projects in the works at the Defense Department's DIUx (Defense Innovation Unit Experimental), created last year by Defense Secretary Ash Carter to boost cooperation between the Pentagon and the private technology industry.

At a news conference in the Boston area on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Ash Carter described the early results of his effort to modernize the U.S. military by giving it the latest and greatest technology as quickly as possible.

He said a company named Halo Neuroscience recently signed an agreement with the Pentagon to work on a brain stimulation device that might someday be used to train the troops.

"They've invented a wearable device that looks like a pair of headphones and uses non-invasive electrical stimulation to increase the brain's natural ability to adapt to training," Carter said.

"These headsets will be used by teams from our Special Operations Forces who will work with Halo to gauge how effective their device might be to improving marksmanship, close quarters combat skills and overall strength training. And that's just the first project on the books."

Carter said "many more" DIUx projects are expected to be finalized in the next few weeks, ranging from "secure network mapping to autonomous seafaring drones."

He said the DIUx pipeline "is brimming with possibility."

Carter was in Cambridge, Mass. on Tuesday to open the East Coast branch of DIUx. (The West Coast branch is in Silicon Valley.)

He noted that Russia and China are modernizing their militaries with new technology, and the United States must keep up.

"One way we're doing that is by pushing the envelope with R&D and new technologies -- like data science, biotech, cyber defense, electronic warfare, undersea drones and many, many, many others.

"And we're making some serious investments here. The latest budget I've proposed will invest $72 billion in research and development next year alone. And for context, that's more than double what Intel, Apple and Google spent on R&D last year combined."

Carter said DIUx posts on its website a particular problem that needs solving.

"Maybe we want to find a way to patch unknown cyber vulnerabilities in our networks. Maybe we're looking for a way to quickly scale up production of the 3D printed micro drones that we're developing," he said.

Interested companies can propose solutions to a problem. "And if they're invited to, they then pitch their solutions to the DIUx partners," Carter explained.

"It's a merit-based competition that's truly accessible. Any startup or commercial firm could submit a proposal. From there, things can move very, very quickly. Once the most promising solution is identified, DIUx can then negotiate and execute fast, flexible and collaborative awards with the goal to issue funding within 60 days of a first meeting with the company.

"And later, if the military customer is satisfied and wants to move to follow-on production, they can do so much more swiftly as well."

'Kind of creepy'

In a Q&A session that followed, a reporter said the prototype headgear sounds "kind of creepy."

Carter said the biological sciences, like all technologies, can be used "for good or ill."

"Our job is to make sure that our -- that our society is protected and that our military is at the frontier of that field."

Raj Shah, the managing partner of DIUx, described Halo Neuroscience as an "early stage company that is used by many leading athletes, Olympic athletes.

"And so, what we've done here at the department is to engage with them to see and test whether or not that technology is applicable to enhancing our combat capability and to see if we need a further engagement."

Shah said another company, founded by MIT grads, is building an autonomous drone intended to map the inside of a room.

DIUx reports directly to the Defense Secretary. It has its own contracting capability and budget resources.

Carter said the success of DIUx depends partly on Congress breaking out of its rut and not buying the same things they've always bought for the military. He urged Congress not to put up roadblocks to organizational innovations.

"We can't accomplish what we're trying to do in DOD without a willing partner in Congress, and I'm hopeful Congress will join us in trying to break away from the status quo, break out of our ruts and help keep our military the best and most capable in the world so we can continue to keep America safe and secure."

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