Naval Postgraduate School and Microsoft accelerate research and development capabilities

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Advanced education and research enables discovery and innovation. The Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) recently announced a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with Microsoft to help bring the latest in commercial innovations to its campus and from there to the rest of the Navy and Marine Corps. As the nation’s premier defense graduate university, NPS is focused on empowering its operationally experienced students and expert faculty to research and solve operational challenges faced by the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Department of Defense.

NPS developed this strategic collaboration to bring some of the brightest military students and researchers together with technology leaders to accelerate applied research into capability solutions to address several highly complex issues affecting national security.

The CRADA enables a new Cooperative Research Initiative (CRI), where Microsoft experts will collaborate side-by-side with NPS students, faculty and staff to address four major areas:

  • Implementing cloud-enhanced network and intelligent edge capabilities – exploring software-defined connections via terrestrial, submarine fiber and satellites, and demonstrating advanced computing capabilities at the tactical edge.
  • Developing a campus of the future – integrating the latest technology from our collaboration and productivity tools to help transition NPS into a state-of-the-art learning institution – a campus of the future – to enable virtual classrooms so service members can access real-time education and training resources anywhere in the world.
  • Accelerating 21st century Gaming, Exercising, Modeling, & Simulation (GEMS) – collaborating to research and innovate with the latest modeling and simulation capabilities to support enhanced strategic gaming capabilities and mission planning needs.
  • Enhancing digital enterprise and field experimentation – testing and integrating the latest developments from a joint innovation lab to the field, accelerating the pace of innovation to deliver emerging capabilities for our war fighters.

One of the first of these priority areas to be delivered and have a strategic impact is an effort known as Project Athena – a key component of the campus of the future initiative. Athena is a collaborative research tool that will significantly improve research and collaboration not just at NPS — but across the entire Department of Defense (DOD). The quick development of Athena showcases the promise of this critical collaboration between Microsoft and a key DOD research and innovation partner like NPS.

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Roadblocks to research

NPS is home to many of the nation’s brightest minds working to solve our country’s most complex security and defense challenges. The school has decades’ worth of data stored in its archives, and NPS students and faculty are essentially human databases themselves. To graduate, students are required to complete a thesis or capstone research project, which requires choosing a relevant topic/problem and then conducting research by digging through digital databases and working alongside faculty.

Determining a thesis topic is not something NPS students take lightly. “While research at NPS is technically focused, our students are committed to service. So, when they’re asked to choose areas of research, they all want to work on projects that would have a huge impact for the Navy,” says Marine Corps Col. Randy Pugh, NPS senior Marine and program lead.

But NPS data infrastructure was not conducive to timely research or collaboration. Their databases were siloed and disconnected, making it challenging to discover ongoing or future research initiatives. Just finding what to research — let alone how to research — was equal parts guesswork, crowdsourcing and luck. Todd Lyons, vice president of the NPS Foundation, explains: “You could access the database of record to find research that had already been completed — assuming it was uploaded to NPS Calhoun archive — but there was no way of knowing what was happening today. To know that, you’d have to go out of your way asking faculty and other students what they were working on, hoping it’d be similar to your idea. It really was word of mouth, to be honest.”

Even if you did find a relevant problem to cover, finding relevant answers presented its own set of challenges. “Typically, a sponsor would enter their question into the Naval Research Program portal and it basically disappeared for a year or two,” says Lyons. “There was also no guarantee that the answer — if you received one — was actually what you were looking for.”

NPS needed a better, more organized way of storing information, encouraging collaboration, and connecting students with subject matter experts (SMEs) – and they needed a technology partner to make it happen.

Modernizing and accelerating national security research

Project Athena is a collaborative research tool built on the Azure stack and deployed through Microsoft Teams. Over the last year, the NPS Foundation has supported the development of Project Athena to provide a scalable platform that empowers the NPS community’s innovative academic ecosystem. It provides a comprehensive and inclusive intelligent data store that will support access to all existing DOD research projects, research resources and all current requests for new research.

Integrated into Teams for ease of use and centralization, Athena’s user interface for data discovery and user collaboration is built around six basic features:

  • A consistent “workspace” application model for all research endeavors
  • The ability to use keyword-prompted searches and full-text searching to find relevant information and resources quickly and efficiently
  • A table-defined and easily modified hierarchical subject taxonomy that organizes resource query results into familiar and logical research areas
  • Standardized subject-based keywords that are used to tag all Athena resources
  • A set of customizable filter menus that disclose the resources available through Athena and the most common properties
  • A set of context-specific popup menus that allow users to discover, collect, connect, share and collaborate over Athena’s research resources

Athena allows NPS to standardize data in a way that keeps it orderly and easily searchable. This helps SMEs to easily and securely clean up and merge keywords, customize and tag the taxonomy, modify and extend the filter menus, and clean up the use of standardized search terms within resource records. SMEs can work with source repository owners to prepare their data for Athena ingestion and adapt the taxonomy to best meet the needs of their research area.

Through collaboration with Microsoft, NPS will have the ability to use Azure Cognitive Search translation capabilities in Athena to translate documents written in other languages into English, drastically reducing the time and cost of seeking manual translation.

The future of research

For NPS students and researchers, Athena will be game-changing. With Athena, all they need to do is log into Teams to get the latest information about completed, ongoing and proposed research projects.

Athena will not only improve research, but also collaboration. Through a single tool, students are now able to find advisors, collaborators, sponsors and partners with specific interests and skills to help develop their research. This creates a research environment that encourages experimentation and socialization between like-minded researchers and communities.  Most importantly, Athena also allows those who are experiencing problems in the Navy, Marine Corps, or joint force to know their problems are being worked on by these teams, to participate in the development of solutions, and to quickly implement the results of the research when the projects are completed.

It also creates pathways for students to test their research findings out in the real world. “We created Athena to help people identify problems, develop ideas and connect students to the field people actually working on these problems, whether they’re in an IT environment, on an aircraft carrier or on a forward-operating base.” says Rick Hargrove, NPS Foundation member and lead architect of Athena. “If the research could help them with their job, then we want to foster that collaboration.”

A lasting partnership

Microsoft has supported our national security community for more than 40 years, delivering the latest technologies to ensure our women and men have the tools to meet their missions.

Athena serves as an example of the type of the capabilities this collaboration with NPS can enable through the Cooperative Research Initiative. Through continued collaboration, the CRI’s four focus areas will integrate and complement one another to help NPS build a robust campus and institution that will leverage the latest in commercial innovation to advance its mission impact and address current and future challenges.

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