Sensors

Inside the ‘foundational’ future technologies of the world’s largest defense company

WASHINGTON ― Lockheed Martin is the world’s largest defense contractor, a company with more than $47 billion in revenue in 2016. But if the company intends to stay relevant, it needs to develop new capabilities ― and its top technology expert has identified the key pots of money in which he wants to invest.

Keoki Jackson, Lockheed’s chief technology officer, laid out to reporters the “foundational” technologies in which his firm will be investing over the next two to three decades when he spoke at an Oct. 11 roundtable.

The technologies fall into three broad categories, with the first being what Jackson called “strategic technology thread areas,” areas that “go across pretty much anything Lockheed Martin will do, all these domains whether from undersea to outer space.”

Included in that pot are autonomy, directed energy, signal processing and communications, sensor technology and exploitation, and advanced cybersecurity.

Usable directed energy weapons, long described in defense circles as just around the corner, are truly at a “tipping point”, according to Jackson, who said he is confident the company’s 60-kilowatt system, which has been used on a Stryker vehicle, can be scaled up to 150 kilowatts or more.

Although not initially part of his discussion, Jackson later acknowledged the company is working on hypersonic technology as well. “I do believe we’re on the verge of a revolution in hypersonics, and we are certainly committed to supporting our customers in their quest for high-speed strike capabilities,” he said.

The second pot involves enabling technologies ― areas where there is a “huge amount of investment” going on in universities and the commercial tech sector, Jackson explained.

“These are areas where we look not just to develop specific capabilities in-house, but really to leverage these huge investments that are going on in the commercial world that are really advancing,” Jackson said, noting investments in these areas can be found anywhere from the financial sector to the agricultural world.

That pot includes data analytics and big data, advanced electronics, and advanced materials and manufacturing. This is where Lockheed Martin’s LM venture fund, a roughly $100 million pot of money for investing in outside tech companies, most comes into play.

Finally, there is the third pot, which is made up of emerging technologies that “are kind of longer range, they are iffier bets, they are higher risk.” Among those noted by Jackson in this pot were quantum computing, communications and cryptology, as well as synthetic biology.

“We’re in an age today where you can effectively design a living molecular machine, you can compile it using a set of tools that is very much like a program compiler in a programming language, and then you can auto-generate a set of DNA sequences,” Jackson said of the synthetic biology piece. “You can create molecular machines to build almost anything at that molecular level with molecular precision.”

But while predicting biological technology is going to “revolutionize” the aerospace world, Jackson admitted he‘s most excited about the potential from quantum technologies, particularly the potential impact on information sciences.

“I believe the next leap in information technology, computing and sensing is going to come out of the quantum world. It is going to enable us to solve computational problems that we just cannot address today. It’s going to enable us to design new materials that we don’t have any way to go after,” he said.

A 2015 study from the U.S. Air Force warned there is significantly more “hype” than reality around quantum tech, and Jackson was upfront that it may never pay off for Lockheed the way he hopes. But the potential of the technology is worth plunking down the research funding, including the procurement of an expensive D-Wave system.

“Some of this seems a little science fiction-y, but i will tell you we see it in labs in the U.S., in other countries, where you’re actually seeing multi-qubit kind of computation systems come together and some really interesting advances in communications and sensing,” he said.

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