It was inevitable that defense contractors would embrace social media for R&D sooner or later. Mav6, a smallish aerospace outfit, is promoting a new platform called EdgeFuse that lets defense contractors, military personnel, and government employees trade relevant tweets and Instagram photos via smartphone—in short, a hybrid of Delicious and Pinterest. Will social networking build better weapons?
Mav6's senior vice president Gregg Sypeck seems to think so. Sypeck, a former IBM and Fujitsu consultant, works at a firm heavily staffed by Blackwater alums and military personnel with tech backgrounds. In an interview with Co.Exist, Sypeck described EdgeFuse as "a collection and ecosystem of various tools," of which the smartphone app is only the first component. The company’s long-term goal, according to promotional materials, is to "provide defense contractors with a rich library of real problems worth solving."
To date, Mav6 is best known for their work on a gigantic missile-equipped spy blimp, the Blue Devil II, that David Axe of Wired's Danger Room blog detailed got caught in a convoluted tug-of-war with the Air Force and other defense contractors. Mav6 is currently working on deals with other branches of the American military, as well as international organizations like NATO. The University of Colorado Boulder’s Boulder Digital Works (BDW) is partnered with Mav6 on the EdgeFuse project, along with digital strategy firm Undercurrent and designers Future Partners.
In basic terms, Mav6 is trying to leverage social networking to create a collaboration platform for engineers, researchers, and sales teams at defense contractors that also lets military users comment on functionality. Longer-term plans for the project include integration with LinkedIn and Facebook’s APIs. EdgeFuse, which will launch in beta in September 2012, will also reward users with "points" for sharing information. By creating a secure social network for defense contractors, the idea is that visual sharing for the field as a whole will drive R&D costs downwards.
According to BDW’s David Slayden, EdgeFuse allows Mav6 to "hack the defense acquisition bureaucracy" by connecting military end-users with ideas generated outside of the military by start-ups, small businesses, innovators, and entrepreneurs. Future apps developed by graduate students in the BDW program for Mav6 include a "What’s F**kin’ Broken" tool that allows troops to enter problems with the equipment they’re using and watch the progress of their complaint ticket.
For Mav6, the primary motivation behind EdgeFuse appears to be the unoccupied niche for collaboration platforms in the defense industry. Due to very specific security requirements and issues related to everything from the use of personal smartphones for work to preserving trade secrets, collaborative platforms for defense contractors have lagged behind those in most other scientific sectors. Defense contractors have money to throw around; a smartphone-based collaborative tool that meets Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) scrutiny could be very lucrative indeed.
Most importantly, targeting defense contractors and the third-party firms that do business with them is good business for Mav6 and other small- and medium-sized defense contractors. The United States’ defense budget has entered a new phase of belt tightening, with savings goals made for most military branches that almost guarantee a clampdown on super-lucrative contracts. Selling the defense industry on social networks and collaborative tools that have been around the private sector for a while simply makes good business sense.