The Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) and Its Relationship to the Space Economy


The space industry has seen a tremendous surge in innovation and commercialization in recent years, with an increasing number of private companies entering the sector. The Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) has emerged as a key player in fostering the relationship between the defense sector and the rapidly growing space economy. This article explores the role of DIU in driving innovation and collaboration between the defense industry and the space economy.

DIU: An Overview

Established in 2015, the Defense Innovation Unit is an organization within the United States Department of Defense (DoD) that works to bridge the gap between the military and innovative commercial technology companies. It operates as a defense-focused innovation hub, identifying cutting-edge technologies and facilitating their adoption within the military.

DIU’s primary mission is to accelerate the adoption of emerging commercial technologies across the defense sector. It operates on a unique model that combines the speed and agility of startups with the vast resources and scale of the U.S. military. With offices in Silicon Valley, Boston, Austin, Chicago, and the Pentagon, DIU actively engages with the tech industry and entrepreneurs to identify solutions to critical defense challenges.

DIU’s Focus on Space Innovation

Recognizing the strategic importance of space technology in modern warfare and national security, DIU has placed significant emphasis on fostering innovation in the space sector. Their area of focus is on developing on-demand access to space, persistent satellite capabilities, and broadband space data transfer. Specific topics of interest are as follows:

Peacetime Indications & Warnings

Improve situational awareness and support decision makers by leveraging small, low-cost imaging satellites with a range of sensing modalities to build our capacity and broaden our focus for pattern-of-life analysis.

Responsive Access to Mission-Designated Orbits

Adopt commercial launch-as-a-service to improve flexibility to launch various payloads from air, land or sea; enable precision delivery of payloads to prescribed orbits with minimal delay; and increase launch cadence and capacity to ensure responsive access to space.

Reduced Latency Communications & GPS Resiliency

Provide a scalable means to meet the future needs of DoD satellite control networks and enable Service members to navigate on the ground through GPS denied and/or degraded signal environments.

Hardware-to-Software Transformation Modernization

Modernize critical legacy hardware systems using new, adaptable approaches, such as software-defined systems, that extend the life of hardware, improve capabilities, and eliminate the challenge of parts obsolescence.

Multi-Orbit Operations & Logistics

Provide low-cost, responsive access to exotic orbits as well as new nodes for logistics and in-space developmental tests.

Partnerships and Collaborations

DIU has forged partnerships with space companies, including both established players and emerging startups. These collaborations enable the defense sector to tap into the expertise and innovation of the commercial space industry.

DIU has worked closely with space startups. For instance, the organization collaborated with Capella Space, a provider of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite imagery, to enhance the military’s geospatial intelligence capabilities. The partnership resulted in the integration of Capella’s SAR data into the DoD’s infrastructure, providing improved situational awareness and intelligence gathering capabilities. Another example is LeoLabs a provider of space situational awareness services.

Major Activities in Progress

Hybrid Space Architecture

The DIU’s Hybrid Space Architecture (HSA) program is an initiative aimed at providing global, ubiquitous, and secure internet connectivity throughout space for commercial, civil, and military users, including international allies and partners. The program is a collaboration between the DIU, the United States Space Force (USSF) Space Warfighting Analysis Center (SWAC), and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Space Vehicles Directorate.

The HSA program seeks to create a network architecture that uses both commercial and government space assets across various orbits to offer secure, assured, and low-latency data communications both on Earth and in space. As part of the program, the DIU has awarded contracts to several companies, including Aalyria, Anduril, Atlas, and Enveil, to work on this prototype effort.

One of the visions of the HSA program is to realize the next leap in hybrid space communications, which represents the convergence of the information age and the space age. Cloud providers are already partnering with teleports, centers that connect ground-satellite communications, to establish cloud capability in space. To maximize the capabilities of these networks, the Department of Defense (DoD) aims to ensure network interoperability, homogeneity, and compatibility with existing DoD assets.

The HSA program is seen as an enabler for a fully networked battlespace, a concept that military commanders have envisioned for decades. The program is expected to have a range of benefits for warfighters, such as on-demand or near-real-time satellite imagery, theater-wide tracking, and reliable broadband internet at remote forward operating bases.

Novel Responsive Space Delivery

The defense innovation unit published an RFP on June 30, 2023, soliciting proposals on responsive space delivery systems. The RFP closed on July 17.


The ability to rapidly re-constitute space-based capabilities or re-supply payloads or cargo at precise locations for time-sensitive logistics (in-space or terrestrially) is a critical but presently non-existent capability that contributes to sustained U.S. economic leadership in space, and builds an enduring advantage that may be leveraged during times of crisis or conflict. With the emergence of in-space manufacturing and accelerated growth of both manned and unmanned orbital destinations requiring logistics support, there is a need to deliver/return payloads and cargo accurately, safely and on-demand. Sustaining isolated or remote platforms or teams of people affordably and at scale additionally requires evaluation of emerging technology solutions that potentially satisfy commercial, civil and national security needs.

Desired Solution

The Department of Defense (DoD) seeks novel commercial solutions that enable responsive and precise point-to-point delivery of cargo to, from, and through space. Doing so in a cost effective manner at scale requires solutions that leverage reusable or serviceable technologies to move a wide variety of cargo where it is needed, when it is needed. Awarded companies will prototype autonomous delivery for one or more of three distinct modalities: from Earth to a mission-designed orbit or trajectory in space, orbital return from space to the Earth to a precise point of recovery, and through space from one orbit to another.

Submissions should address one or more of these “to,” “from,” and “through” modalities and the envisioned delivery vehicle prototype(s) necessary for successful flight demonstration. Companies that cannot organically support an end-to-end demonstration (all three modalities) are encouraged to support teaming arrangements that may be facilitated through this project.

This solicitation will begin with a commercialization analysis, mission planning, and initial non-recurring engineering (NRE) phase focused on both commercial and government applications to further refine concepts of operation for in-space and terrestrial delivery. Selected prototypes may subsequently progress to additional phases for one or more mission  demonstrations conducted using an agile development methodology. Later phases may additionally include:

  • Larger payloads (by mass and/or volume) delivered with greater accuracy.
  • Suborbital delivery of cargo for emergent/on-demand needs.
  • Addition of autonomous distribution for “last mile” delivery.
  • Investigation of suitability to support or augment other time-sensitive operations such as rescue or disaster response.

Submission Guidelines

Compelling solutions will be:

  • Novel in capability, capacity, responsiveness, and delivery accuracy.
  • Mature and ready to show key elements of brassboard or flight-ready hardware within 90 days of award.
  • Minimally viable and flight-ready within 24 months.
  • Supported by a Payload User’s Guide (PUG) made available upon request detailing relevant approaches to cargo loading, interfaces, launch vehicle compatibility, insertion into mission-defined staging orbit, orbital maneuver, re-entry, descent and precision landing based on the modalities addressed in the submission.
  • Designed for autonomous operation.
  • Designed to minimize or prevent the release of orbital debris.
  • Produced via domestic and/or friendly foreign supply chains.
  • Responsive and cost effective either as a service or at production scale.
  • Helpful to solving the Last Mile Delivery (LMD) challenge in space.
  • Commercially viable independent of the government use cases discussed herein.

Desired solution differentiators:

  • Responsiveness (lead time, in hours or days, from order to launch and orbital insertion, and delivery time from a staging orbit to intended point of delivery in-space or terrestrial, as applicable; lower is better).
  • Cadence (number of deliveries within a given timeframe; higher is better).
  • Compatibility (modular components, configurable cargo compartments, and delivery vehicles providing the greatest flexibility in mass and volume or otherwise suitable for larger servicer or ‘dispensor’ space logistics vehicles are preferred).
  • Capacity (a variety of mass and volume capacities will be considered; larger is better. Tens to hundreds of kilograms and appropriately sized cargo compartment volumes).
  • Maneuverability (ability to correct for changes in delivery location, or increase flexibility in launch or reentry trajectories).
  • Precision (for in-space delivery, sufficient to enable subsequent deployment or recovery of a maneuverable payload or Rendezvous and Proximity Operations (RPO)-capable servicer/logistics vehicle; for terrestrial delivery, maximizes potential to deliver cargo to a terrestrial location as accurately as possible).
  • Longevity (capable of remaining in a mission-designed staging orbit until called upon for delivery; higher is better. Able to sustain cargo or payload viability during extended missions – i.e. power, data, environmental control, etc).
  • Cost (per mission or delivery; lower is better).

Impact on the Space Economy

The relationship between DIU and the space economy is mutually beneficial. DIU’s engagement with the commercial space sector accelerates the development and deployment of innovative technologies, thus driving growth and competitiveness in the industry. By partnering with DIU, space companies gain access to the vast resources and potential contracts offered by the Department of Defense, helping them secure crucial funding and expand their customer base.

Furthermore, DIU’s involvement in the space sector contributes to the overall stability and growth of the space economy. By working on enhancing space resiliency and leveraging commercial capabilities for defense purposes, DIU helps safeguard critical space assets and infrastructure. This ensures the uninterrupted operation of space-based services and applications, benefiting both the defense sector and the broader commercial space industry.

Looking Ahead

As the space economy continues to expand, the role of DIU in fostering collaboration and innovation between the defense industry and the commercial space sector becomes increasingly impactful. DIU’s unique model, which combines the agility of startups with the resources of the military, enables rapid technology adoption and accelerates the development of cutting-edge space-related capabilities.

By forging partnerships, facilitating dual-use technologies, and integrating commercial space capabilities into military operations, DIU enhances the defense sector’s capabilities while driving growth and innovation in the space economy. As the space industry evolves, DIU’s collaboration with space companies and startups will remain a critical driver of technological advancement and national security in the space domain.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email