In 2015, Christopher Kirchhoff was working at the National Security Council when an opportunity opened up to answer a big question: What could the Pentagon learn from Silicon Valley? He moved from Washington, D.C., to California to find out.
“I had to go buy a bunch of jeans, and threw away some suits,” he said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher.
During his time at the Department of Defense’s office in Mountain View, Calif. — the headquarters of an initiative known as Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUx — Kirchhoff and his colleagues researched everything from satellites to drones to underwater surveillance. They found and piloted off-the-shelf technologies and, with their stamp of approval, anyone in the department could buy it at scale and get it into the field quickly, which Kirchhoff called the “holy grail of acquisition.”
Now a visiting technologist at Harvard University, Kirchhoff told Swisher that Silicon Valley needs to help the government modernize all departments, including commerce and education — not just defense.
“There is such extraordinary talent out here, and there is no way we’re going to get them to apply for a civil service job,” he said. “We need to find some way to get folks out here that are ready to take a year or two of public service, kind of like the Peace Corps — send them in!”
You can listen to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
On the new podcast, Kirchhoff explained in detail how technological innovations like flying cars can cross the borderline between consumer and defense applications. Although some companies are pursuing the idea of developing air taxis within the next decade, Kirchhoff said the same prototypes are almost good enough to replace helicopters in a military context.
“It turns out that there is enormous opportunity for delivering troops and special forces into denied areas,” he said. “There’s also great possibilities for resupply.”
DIUx has several ranges where it lets commercial companies fly their products, some of which are in the Bay Area; flying car companies are generally “welcome on our test ranges in a hurry,” he said.
A former colleague once described helicopters to Kirchhoff as “a million parts flying closely in formation.” Instead, electric flying vehicles that resemble “a large drone” are expected to be safer and more versatile.
“Because it’s electrically operated, you have far fewer parts than you do in an internal combustion engine, so your rate of engine failure is much lower,” he said. “It’s fully autonomous. The range is pretty impressive on certain companies’ prototypes. What you have is something that’s very close to being operational.”