Image of autonomous vehicle

One of the proposals selected for AIM involves a team of aerial and waterborne autonomous vehicles to collaboratively conduct safety surveys. Photo courtesy AIM Program.

Army Takes AIM at Non-Traditional CWMD Technology Partners

Army Takes AIM at Non-Traditional CWMD Technology Partners

By Brian B. Feeney, Ph.D.

ARMY LEADERS HAVE LONG SOUGHT TO SIMPLIFY THE PROCESS by which a good idea is transformed into innovative technology in the hands of warfighters. The steps in the conventional acquisition process – from determining requirements to exploratory research and development to prototyping – can take as long as ten years.

The Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) Chemical Biological Center teamed up with the Special Operations Command Special Operations Forces Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (SOCOM SOF AT&L) Center and the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense (JPEO-CBRND) to find an improved, more agile way to develop and field technologies that will protect warfighters from chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threats. It’s called Accelerator for Innovative Minds, or AIM for short.

AIM utilizes the power of partnership intermediary agreements (PIAs) to the meet the needs of the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS). PIA partners and other similar technology accelerators are frequently used to help technology start-up companies grow while they develop a new technology and establish a market presence. “In the AIM acquisition model, the DoD and DHS agencies establish problem statements and invite non-traditional companies, acquisition subject matter experts, other government agency subject matter experts, academic experts, and – most importantly – warfighters and operators to use that problem statement as the starting point for a dialogue that spans all phases of the technology development process,” said Michael R. Guinn, the SOCOM SOF AT&L Acquisition Agility Program Manager.

As the dialogue progresses, the participants work collaboratively. The non-traditional companies and entrepreneurial academics participating in the process contribute their knowledge of rapid technology evolution. The warfighters and operators contribute their insights into the real world demands and challenges of using CBRN technologies in the field. The participants share their knowledge, work out technology solution requirements and build relationships to share costs.

“We came together as stakeholders to find a way to bring the smartest, most innovative technology developers from non-traditional backgrounds together with our warfighters and subject matter experts to collaborate on finding novel, paradigm-shifting solutions,” said Joshua Israel, JPEO-CBRND innovation officer. “The subject matter experts from non-traditional small businesses, startups and academia generally know very little about what we do, but at the same time, they possess tremendous knowledge of the technologies we need to meet our CBRN challenges in the field.”

We came together as stakeholders to find a way to bring the smartest, most innovative technology developers from non-traditional backgrounds together with our warfighters and subject matter experts to collaborate on finding novel, paradigm-shifting solutions.
Joshua Israel, JPEO-CBRND innovation officer

Making this new approach possible was a new kind of platform for engaging non-traditional contractors called SOFWERX. SOCOM created it by establishing a PIA with DEFENSEWERX, which is an existing non-profit organization that stands up innovation hubs. SOFWERX, located in Ybor City, FL, is one of DEFENSEWERX’s five innovation hubs. Each of them accelerates the development and fielding of new defense technologies by following a collaboration model similar to AIM’.

SOFWERX’s specific charter is to create and maintain a platform to accelerate delivery of innovative capabilities to SOCOM and to facilitate defense technology advances through exploration, experimentation and assessment of promising technology. This includes a rapid prototyping workshop with 3D printers and an array of other high tech tools. “What is crucial is the collaboration amongst government agencies, non-traditional partners from industry and academia – so that’s what we set out to do,” said Guinn. “For this particular effort, we developed a 5-phase tailored acquisition strategy for these specific problem sets on behalf of our collaborating government agencies.”

The first of the five phases was a meeting held on January 2019 where all of the government participants met at the SOFWERX facility. In their first meeting the AIM team members on the government side established problem statements for the AIM initiative and envisioned desired outcomes. In addition to members of the CCDC Chemical Biological Center, SOCOM AT&L and JPEO-CBRND, representatives from the Department of Homeland Security Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (DHS CWMD) Office, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency attended. “AIM is delivering on the concept of soldier touch points, which is a priority of the DoD, by incorporating warfighter and operator input throughout the process,” said Guinn.

Phase 2 occurred on February 2019. The inter-agency government team invited non-traditional solution providers from across industry and academia to an industry day at SOFTWERX where they collaboratively discussed the government’s CBRN problem statements, met SOCOM warfighters, and began a dialogue with the almost 400 in attendance.

“We saw an opportunity to have a conversation with these non-traditional contractors that was not bureaucratic and fully included the warfighter perspective,” said Israel. “We also used the opportunity to learn how meeting CBRN defense needs through technology development could be done at the pace at which they operate.”

The partners in this initiative saw their mission as establishing a new, enduring cadre of commercial partners that can provide unique CBRN defense solutions. “The non-traditional contractors we reached out to are all on the cutting edge of advanced technology and can nimbly respond to the new ideas we generate together,” said Kevin Wallace, a senior mechanical engineer at the CCDC Chemical Biological Center and a key organizer on the government team. “The Chemical Biological Center can also offer these contractors a number of partnering mechanisms through our Technology Transfer Office plus the benefits of our rapid prototyping and testing capabilities.”

The industry attendees were invited to submit a two-page whitepaper and a quad chart on a CBRN defense solution that they could provide. The government received 192 submissions and from there a diverse evaluation panel narrowed the submissions down to 44 that showed exceptional promise.

In early May, the government invited the submitters of those 44 proposals back to SOFWERX in order to pitch their proposed solutions face-to-face. They were each given 45 minutes and allowed to discuss their proposed technology with government subject matter and acquisition experts. By the end of May, the government had whittled the number of submissions down to eight. In some cases, two separate submitters joined forces to advance a single technology solution by combining their respective strengths.

The eight finalists submitted a range of innovative technology approaches, including:

  • A team of robots to autonomously collaborate to conduct safety surveys. It combines UAVs with waterborne autonomous vehicles that communicate with each other and work in concert to identify and then sample areas suspected of chemical or biological contamination using onboard sensors.
  • An automated digital tool that surveils a global range of publicly available social media and the dark web in all source languages using advanced analytics, natural language processing and machine learning to detect near-term CBRN threats.
  • A lightweight, throwable or droppable, open-source mesh networked sensor designed to detect CBRN threats and convey the information back to a graphical user interface so the warfighters and operators can determine if an area is safe.

At the beginning of June, SOCOM made their contract awards through SOFWERX and each of the winners was given six months to develop their technology to the point where it could be demonstrated in a two-day showcase event. That event was originally planned for March 25-26, 2020. However, the showcase was postponed because of limited operations at Aberdeen Proving Ground due to the COVID-19 epidemic. The AIM team looks forward to seeing those technologies demonstrated when the operating environment allows, Wallace said.

“This will be the culmination of almost two years of hard work on all our parts,” said Wallace. “It will serve as a proof of concept for our vision of how a non-traditional accelerator model can serve warfighters by getting the very best, very latest technology in their hands quickly.”

One of the proposals selected for AIM involves a team of aerial and waterborne autonomous vehicles to collaboratively conduct safety surveys. Photo courtesy AIM Program.