Tuesday, March 16, 2004

'Integration' and 'Vision' at Michigan Small Tech

An extremely successful Michigan Small Tech event today. It will take me a little while to sort through all my notes, but here are a few initial impressions. Well, first, let me try out an opening joke that completely bombed during the panel discussion I moderated on defense and homeland security.

    Thank you, and welcome to our breakout session on defense and security. All of you might feel a slight tingling sensation as our swarms of microscopic smart dust surround you. Don't panic. They're merely taking DNA samples. They're perfectly harmless ... unless you put up a fight.


No sounds but the mid-March Motown snowstorm raging outside.

I got a couple of pity chuckles when I added. "That was supposed to be a joke."

Yet another reason why I'm a PRINT journalist.

Anyway, things went much better after that. My panelists were Paul Decker of the U.S Tank Automotive Research and Development Center (TARDEC), Rao Boggavarapu of General Dynamics Land Systems, Uwe Michalak of Sensicore Inc. and Fred Grasman of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

Among the many topics we discussed was the U.S. Army's Future Combat Systems program that will completely transform the U.S. fighting force, from the vehicles they drive to the clothing they wear. Along the way, there are opportunities, through Small Business Innovation Research grants, for small tech companies to get in on the military spending spree. By the time the project is scheduled to end in 2015, companies that make nanomaterials, biothreat detectors and other small tech products will have had a piece of the action.

The technology isn't all there yet. The military is looking for a few good companies to supply them with nanomaterials and to help them catch up with the Japanese in robotics.

One audience member brought up an excellent point -- and one that I've heard many times in relation to the nanotech and other industries. Everybody is working on their own, proprietary technologies, but they are giving little thought to how they will work in tandem with one another. The government is not providing any guidelines or standards on how these devices to be used in the battlefield will talk to one another.

For example, a soldier's portable bioagent detector may pick up traces of anthrax, but then the data needs to be quickly, wirelessly transmitted to battlefield commanders who can make decisions based on that information. Instant detection of biohazards or point-of-care diagnostics of injured soldiers are not adequate if there is no real-time transmission of the data, a smart, distributed network of sensors to span large spaces, a power source to keep the juice flowing for weeks of possible isolation, etc.

Companies and researchers are now competing fiercely to provide the military with these necessary tools. But, like their counterparts in consumer electronics, these companies are largely working within their own closed, proprietary systems.

Competing companies are not necessarily thinking of how their applications can interact with another company's proprietary applications. Right now, who has the birds-eye view of the battlefield? Who is going to set the standards? It's possible that it's too early for that. Perhaps it's organizations like TARDEC that can set those standards after the companies compete with one another just to get to the test battlefield.

A great deal more was discussed on the panel, but I'll save it for later.

One more point on birds-eye view, though. During the keynote by Louis Ross of the Global Emerging Technology Institute, one audience member asked what nanotechnology's "focus" is right now. Comparisons had been made earlier to the way Sputnik had forced the U.S. government to focus its own space program on putting a man on the moon. Joe Giachino of the Center for Wireless Integrated Microsystems asked, "What do you see as the focus of nanotechnology" that would be comparable to the moon challenge?

Ross hit on the NASA theme and mentioned that the space agency does need to reduce weight on spacecraft using nanomaterials. Then, he added: "I think that's a question that can't be answered. You can see how it applies to industries and then you can just take it from there."

Giachino (and, no, I didn't put him up to this), tried again: "I think the thing that captured the public's imagination was the 'man on the moon.' We know what gets Allen Greenspan excited, but what is the thing that will get everybody else excited?"

Ross replied that the answer right now is simply "education." The public doesn't really know what it wants out of nanotechnology because it does not yet know what nanotechnology can do. "People have to be educated," Ross said. "Small Times magazine is educating people. I think that once they understand it, they'll change."

He went on to say that a few years ago, it was hard to convince mobile phone makers in the United States that customers would want to listen to music on their cell phones. Today, the trend is catching on.

"They just didn't have the devices. If they had the devices, they'd say, 'Wow. I want that.' "

Both Ross and Giachino brought up excellent points. I'm with Giachino on the "moon shot" for nano idea, as I've written on this site before. But, as Ross indicated, perhaps an overriding government vision would be confusing for an industry that is still too young and an American public still too unaware.


Warplanes of the Future

Technology Management : Applications to Corporate Markets and Military Missions

The Precision Revolution: GPS and the Future of Aerial Warfare

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