When you're manufacturing products for the military, good design can be a matter of life or death.

Lockheed Martin knows this well. The builder of planes, weapons, and other technology gets 60 percent of its revenue from the U.S. Department of Defense--and the company's $54 billion in sales last year make it the world's largest defense contractor.

Much of the technology bought by the military was meticulously refined in Lockheed's Center for Innovation. Opened in 2005, the Suffolk, Virginia, facility--known colloquially as the Lighthouse--is where the company experiments with new innovations in everything from fighter jets and missile detection systems to drones and satellite software. Rather than creating new products from the ground up, Lockheed uses the Lighthouse primarily to enhance its technologies and make sure they fit its customers' needs. Flight simulators let pilots test out new software; a war-gaming room enables clients to simulate how certain technologies work in real-world scenarios.

"Innovation is technology--autonomy, robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology--but it's also how you do things, and how you do things better with what you have," says Greg Nosal, the center's director of operations. "What's important is not necessarily the technology du jour, but how you best stay ahead of the threats as you go forward."

Take F-35 fighter jets, which the Pentagon buys from Lockheed Martin for around $80 million apiece. Since 2006, when the first iteration of the aircraft hit the market, the company continually has had to integrate it with new technologies used by the various branches of the military. Ground-to-air missiles, for example, often are launched using information gathered by a jet above. Within the innovation lab, Lockheed honed the F-35's ability to gather and communicate that data to troops on the ground. The DOD then was able to test it out using the lab's simulation tools and war-gaming room.

The Department of Defense "was very successful in its initial deployment into Syria," says Nosal, who retired from the Navy in 2013 before joining Lockheed. "They were very gracious to say that if they did not have this opportunity to test these things out here and look at the technology and make sure everybody understands it, they would not have been as successful as they were."

The Center for Innovation's 30-person staff currently is refining a "next-generation" helicopter that will be used by the Army and Marine Corps. It's also working on systems that can defend against weapons that can travel at hypersonic speed, defined as five times the speed of sound.

Inc. recently got an insider's tour of the Lighthouse. Check out the video above, which you can rotate to see the facility in 360 degrees.

Published on: Jun 17, 2019