Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
University of Colorado
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Technology is evolving so quickly these days that even the military is struggling to keep up.

Lloyd Thrall, a former Army Ranger who was later appointed by the Obama administration as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Readiness , specifically created the designing for defense class at the University of Colorado to address this issue.

“We live in a world where military and civilian spheres are converging,” the class professor said. “Now, terrorism, insurgency, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, machine learning, space technology, advanced communications, and social media blend together. So I wonder, as a senior policymaker in this space, are we ready for this world? I’ll tell you I’m not confident we are.”

He emphasized this point by noting that as recently as the late 1980s, nearly half of the entire world’s research and development was funded by the U.S. government and the Department of Defense in particular. Today, it funds less than 5 percent.

“The explosion of commercial R&D, much of it overseas, has displaced the people responsible for our security from the technological heartbeat of our globe,” he said. “That is a disturbing and dangerous trend that demands a more permeable Department of Defense both in terms of its understanding of the technological landscape and in terms of ideas.”

The designing for defense class provides Department of Defense leaders with the opportunity to collaborate with talented student teams at CU and develop innovative solutions to their most pressing national security problems.

On Tuesday, the 53-person class, comprised of all different ages, experience, and majors, presented their projects to 12 judges, including retired major generals and executives from defense companies.

Projects included AJAX, a lightweight antenna that soldiers can use to detect and locate GPS jamming devices in the field; Chariot, an algorithm to better protect the defense department’s data; Valyou, a survey for the Air Force Special Forces Operations designed to reduce anxiety, retain more of their operatives and maximize performance; and Sapana, which made policy recommendations to the Department of Defense to better protect assets in space.

Kevin Jones, the senior program manager for Lockheed Martin’s Boulder campus, said that while the compnay didn’t specifically sponsor a project in this year’s class, the global defense company is excited about the opportunity to not only hire students from this class but also to invest in their ideas.

“These students aren’t tainted yet, so they’re willing to challenge the status quo and challenge our people with creative ideas,” he said. “Technology is changing so fast that even if you graduated five years ago, you’re already out of date, so what these students are learning is really valuable to us.”

For the students in the class, the opportunity to garner real-world experiences with military and business leaders while also developing a potential business was among the most rewarding class of their college experiences.

“I had the time of my life,” said Alex Curtiss, a senior majoring in computer science and telecommunications at CU Boulder who worked on AJAX. “We were not only making something that we could have fun building but that we could also sell or potentially turn into a business, which you don’t get often in classes. It was very eye-opening.”

While there are no winners per se during pitch night on Tuesday, Thrall said the National Security Innovation Network, which helps sponsor the class, will take the best presentations to a national event hosted by the Founders Fund, the biggest venture capital organization in the world.

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