Strategic Priority No. 5

By Dori Ellis, Deputy Labs Director

Photography By Rebecca Gustaf

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Seeking new pathfinder systems to address threats

Dori Ellis, Deputy Labs Director
NEW PATHFINDER — Deputy Labs Director Dori Ellis seeks engagement from across Sandia to develop pathfinder systems that push beyond leading-edge technologies to address national security concerns.

Note: Prior to becoming Sandia deputy labs director in June 2019, Dori served as the associate labs director for Division 8000, Integrated Security Solutions. In this role, Dori oversaw Strategic Priority No. 5 for most of fiscal year 2019.

Since 1949, Sandia has developed advanced technologies to ensure global peace. Some of these innovations — for example, contributions to nuclear weapons, space missions and national intelligence assessments — exemplify what Sandia’s senior leadership team considers to be the Labs’ flagship pathfinder systems.

Reflecting on such systems and their pioneering contributions to national security over the years led Sandia’s strategic planning team to conceive of Strategic Priority No. 5: Invent and demonstrate pathfinder systems to address threats.

The goal of this strategic priority is to think beyond Sandia’s traditional boundaries. We are convinced that Sandia is uniquely positioned to develop new pathfinder systems because of our technical depth and breadth across multiple disciplines. Inventing and demonstrating these systems are important steps toward creating the future at Sandia.

Defining pathfinder systems

What are pathfinder systems? We define them as “advanced systems that help solve significant technical challenges of national interest, explore new technologies and system concepts, demonstrate advanced concepts that support evolving mission requirements, reduce technological risk, shape new programs and transfer technology to the private sector.”

Furthermore, a pathfinder system is an effort whose success requires integrating far-reaching capabilities (people, research and facilities) to deliver something that has never been possible before. Pathfinder systems depend on the maturation of cutting-edge technology and systems solutions through technology readiness levels.

Sandia is interested in developing threat-informed pathfinder system solutions that push beyond the leading edge of technology to address critical national security concerns on mission-relevant time scales. We will focus on systems that are too risky for industry and academic partners to pursue on their own. We welcome diverse ideas, and we plan to leverage R&D and technology partnerships from the private sector, as well as our relationships with thought leaders in academia.

These pathfinder system solutions must be large in scale and cross multiple program portfolios at Sandia, supporting several different customers and mission areas. In addition, they must be innovative and address a major national security threat that either has not been anticipated or simply does not exist yet.

Finally, the new pathfinder systems should be driven by Sandia’s other mission-focused strategic priorities (No. 2: Nuclear deterrent; No. 3: Intelligence science; No. 4: Threat detection; and No. 6: Engineering, science and technology).

Seeking ideas for new pathfinder systems

To achieve Strategic Priority No. 5, we must first identify pathfinder systems to focus on as a national laboratory. We seek engagement from across the Labs to help us accomplish this goal.

Sandia’s strategic planning team has discussed several methods for finding such pathfinders. In addition to collaborating with industry and academia, we encourage taking steps to partner with our Laboratory Directed Research and Development program, discern national security gaps that Sandia is uniquely positioned to address and draw upon our vast breadth to think about problems differently.

For example, a pathfinder system could be developed by following an incubator concept via the LDRD program. After starting as a high-risk, unconstrained LDRD project that challenges the status quo, the system could then move on toward achieving technology demonstration.

Other pathfinder systems could be identified as possible ways to tackle national security gaps and innovation challenges through Sandia-unique technologies and capabilities in our program portfolios.

If you have ideas for a pathfinder system that could push beyond leading-edge technologies to address national security concerns, contact Amy Shrouf, the lead for Strategic Priority No. 5 and senior manager of the advanced systems program.

We look forward to hearing from you. Our nation is counting on Sandia to use our resources and capabilities as a national laboratory to solve the most pressing challenges facing our world today. We are eager to see how Sandia will continue its long history of rendering exceptional service in the national interest by developing pathfinder systems that advance global peace.