VICKSBURG, Miss. – The 2021 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Innovation Summit was conducted virtually, October 25-29. The event, themed “Innovation to Impact: Leading from the Future,” provided participants the opportunity to share ideas and to work towards creating a culture that accepts more risks with innovative ideas to deliver programs and projects more efficiently in a cost-effective manner.
“If you look at the times we are in, we have a record workload for our military and civil works programs,” said Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon, USACE Commanding General and 55th Chief of Engineers for USACE. “We have historic levels of investment that the nation is putting into its infrastructure. The Corps of Engineers is playing a big part.”
The five-day, high-profile networking event featured keynote speakers from USACE, Amazon, Caterpillar, Rebellion Defense, NASA, Microsoft and IBM. Speakers shared insights on how innovation has transformed their workplaces and provided details on some of their most forward-thinking projects.
Dr. Dara O’Rourke, senior principal scientist for Amazon, supported the Innovation Summit with his keynote address on Monday, October 25. O’Rourke is both a professor and practitioner studying the environmental, health, and social impacts of global supply chains. He leads Amazon’s sustainability science and innovation team, which maps, measures and models Amazon sustainability impacts.
“The starting point for innovation is knowing what your customer wants,” O’Rourke said in his keynote. “Knowing this allowed us to develop science and data to support the key analysis and innovations that can drive Amazon to be more sustainable.”
The more than 2,500 virtual attendees also participated in sessions and panel discussions that highlighted innovation happening across the USACE according to the commanding general’s key priority areas —people, readiness, partnerships and revolutionize. Specific topic areas included military programs, civil works, geospatial support, contingency operations, research and development and interagency and international services, as well as a new area called workforce of the future.
“Innovation supports all four of our priorities,” Lt. Gen. Spellmon said. “Whether it’s people, readiness, partnerships or revolutionize, innovation helps us achieve our vision, which is engineering solutions for our nation’s toughest challenges.”
In addition to innovation, the need for and importance of partnerships was stressed. Partnerships, particularly public-private partnerships, are key to innovation and vital to helping solve issues that we face today.
Another major theme of the summit was the use of machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) in research and development. Machine learning is the study of computer algorithms that can improve automatically through experience and by the use of data. Artificial intelligence is the simulation of human intelligence processes by machines, especially computer systems. For USACE, some applications for ML and AI include military hydrology, autonomous surveying and extreme weather planning.
Haley Dozier, computer scientist in the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center’s (ERDC) Information Technology Laboratory, discussed how ERDC is using AI to help with military hydrology, which looks at water features and their impacts on military operations. ERDC assists the Department of Defense in operations throughout the world with various applications affecting mobility, inundation modeling and hydrologic forecasting.
With the rise in AI and ML capabilities, the ERDC scientists and engineers are exploring the possibility of using these new advances in computing to build an operationally relevant watershed model on a continental scale. Most flood models rely on numerical analysis and methods which impose many issues when dealing with complex data due to the computational expense.
“Our research group wants to test the application of these technologies to a complex area like military hydrology and, more specifically, flood forecasting,” Dozier said. “The purpose of this effort is to use AI or ML to offset the setback and ingest all of the complex data sources to derive a comprehensive water model.”
“Research and development will continue to support innovation,” said Dr. David Pittman, director of the ERDC, who also serves as chief scientist and director of research and development for USACE. “Research is all about innovation. If we aren’t innovating, we’re not doing our job.”
In addition to discussing the importance of innovation, Pittman introduced summit attendees to USACE’s “Top 10 Research and Development Priorities.” They include mitigate and adapt to climate change, win future wars, modernize our nation’s infrastructure, support resilient communities, enable smart and resilient installations, ensure environmental sustainability and resilience, secure reliable installation energy, revolutionize and accelerate decision making, improve cyber and physical security and protect and defend the arctic.
“These new strategies will lay the foundation for a bold new era in research and development innovation,’ Pittman said. “We cannot engineer solutions for the nation’s toughest problems without innovation.”