New NGA Research director maps the future of the agency’s R&D
It took British watchmaker John Harrison five years to build the first marine clock capable of determining longitude at sea, which he unveiled in London in 1735. Known today as the Harrison 1, or H1, the brass contraption of wheels, gears, springs, and spindles looks more like an alien sea vessel than a clock. And yet, it remains one of the most significant timepieces in history, according to Dr. Peter Highnam, director of research at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).
“The Harrison 1 changed the world. That clock was leading-edge technology for its time,” Highnam said Sunday while giving the closing keynote address at GEOINT Foreword.
As revolutionary as it was, the H1 wasn’t perfect. It led to several more iterative prototypes, the fourth—the H4 chronometer, completed in 1759—earned Harrison a monetary prize from the British government, which in pursuit of its national security interests promised to reward anyone who could develop a simple, practical solution for determining a ship’s longitude.
Resembling a large pocket watch, the H4 has come a long way since its H1 iteration. But H4 would not have come to fruition without its prior prototypes, nor the government carrot that encouraged Harrison to create it in the first place, stressed Highnam, who shared this story to illustrate the newfound strategic importance of research and development at NGA.
“Harrison 4 … gave us precision navigation, and it was driven by national security,” said Highnam, who last week was announced as head of NGA Research, a new NGA office established to champion and drive research across the GEOINT Community, focusing in particular on research at national labs, universities, and commercial businesses.
The result of a reorganization initiated early this year by NGA Director Robert Cardillo, NGA Research replaces the agency’s former InnoVision Directorate and will diverge from its predecessor in at least one major respect: Rather than focusing inward, NGA Research will focus outward, concentrating on the activation of external research in seven distinct focus areas: radar, automation, geophysics, spectral, environment and culture, geospatial cyber, and geophysics.
Along with three special projects shared by Highnam—the In-Q-Tel Interface Center; the GEOINT Pathfinder 2 project; and the creation this summer of a permanent NGA office in Silicon Valley, to be known as NGA Outpost Valley—NGA Research will incentivize and equip modern-day Harrisons to create the GEOINT equivalent of the H1 clock, which with appropriate time, investment, and refinement could one day deliver H4-like capabilities to warfighters, policymakers, and first responders.
“The advantage of working in an ‘ARPA’ is you don’t have a mission of your own except to do R&D; you exist to find something out, to make something happen, and to transition it into practice,” concluded Highnam, a veteran of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA).
“We at NGA are on the other end of that—I don’t care where it comes from. I shouldn’t care where it comes from,” he said. “If it will give us a war-winning capability … I should be interested in it and we should take advantage of it.”
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