PROTECTION FOR ALL: The need to find and field new technology to detect CBRN threats is pressing—protecting U.S. forces is paramount. AIM is here to help. (Photo by Master Sgt. Joy Dulen, 7th Mission Support Command)
Agile acquisition accelerates emerging technology transition to warfighters.
by Brian B. Feeney, Ph.D.
National security in the 21st century is a race to outpace our adversaries. That means good ideas must be rapidly transformed into innovative technologies and placed in the hands of warfighters. Digital technologies can change every three months, and near-peer military powers have proven quick to militarize the very latest technological advances.
In the case of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threats, the need to find and field new technology is especially pressing, to afford the best available protection for U.S. forces.
In 2018, a group of defense agencies came together to fill that need. The U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Chemical Biological Center (DEVCOM CBC) teamed up with U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense (JPEO-CBRND) to establish a faster, more agile and enduring process for developing and fielding technologies to protect against CBRN threats. It’s called Accelerator for Innovative Minds (AIM), and it was designed to apply dual-use technologies to warfighter needs.
THE POWER OF PARTNERSHIP
AIM uses the power of partnership intermediary agreements (PIAs) to address the needs of organizations across the federal government. PIA partnerships and other similar technology transition mechanisms are frequently used to help technology startup companies grow while they are maturing a new technology and establishing a market presence. AIM fully uses those advantages and adds to that model.
“In the AIM acquisition model, the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security and other partner agencies establish problem statements and invite nontraditional 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, SOCOM AIM program manager and one of the founders of AIM.
As the dialogue progresses, the participants work together collaboratively. The nontraditional companies and academics 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 are encouraged to share their knowledge, negotiate technology solution requirements and, when appropriate, build relationships to share costs. For example, when two or more government agencies have requirements that may be met under a single solution, it could be advantageous for them to share costs toward a single solution, rather than pursuing separate ones.
“AIM filled a gap in acquisition. It allows for a more rapid cycle of identifying the best technologies and an agile way to establish contracts,” said Jonathan Bartel, JPEO-CBRND joint product leader for CBRN Information Systems. “The subject matter experts from nontraditional 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.”
THE CORE TEAM
The core of this initiative is a partnership between SOCOM, JPEO-CBRND and DEVCOM CBC. SOCOM takes the lead role in most acquisitions because it has the experience and personnel to conduct complex acquisitions. JPEO-CBRND functions as the program office because its structure overseeing its subordinate joint project managers makes it well suited to coordinate the activities between the three partners. DEVCOM CBC serves as the technical hub because of its ability to allow technology developers to access its own workforce of scientists and engineers spanning many disciplines. It also has a unique testing and experimentation infrastructure.
A new kind of platform for engaging nontraditional technology developers was instrumental in making AIM possible. The platform is called SOFWERX, and SOCOM created it by establishing a PIA with DEFENSEWERX, a nonprofit organization that stands up innovation hubs. SOFWERX, in Ybor City, Florida, is one of DEFENSEWERX’s five innovation hubs, each of which accelerates the development and fielding of new defense technologies by following a collaboration model similar to AIM.
SOFWERX’s mission 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 technologies. “What is crucial is the collaboration among government agencies and nontraditional partners from industry and academia—so that’s what we set out to do,” said Guinn. “For this particular effort, we developed a tailored five-phase acquisition strategy for the specific problem sets on behalf of our collaborating government agencies.”
FIVE PHASES TO SUCCESS
The first of the five phases occurred in January 2019, when 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 their desired outcomes. In addition to members of the DEVCOM Chemical Biological Center, SOCOM and JPEO-CBRND, representatives from the Department of Homeland Security Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency also attended.
Phase 2 occurred in February 2019. The interagency government team invited nontraditional solution providers to an interactive industry day at SOFWERX, where they discussed the government’s CBRN problem statements, met SOCOM and Army warfighters and began a dialogue with the almost 400 people in attendance. “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.
“We established a forum to have a conversation with these nontraditional technology developers, that was non-bureaucratic and focused around the warfighter perspective,” said Kevin Wallace, a senior mechanical engineer at DEVCOM CBC and one of AIM’s founders. “We also used the opportunity to learn how meeting CBRN defense needs through technology development could be accomplished at the pace at which these startup companies operate.”
The partners in this initiative saw their mission as establishing a new enduring cadre of commercial and academic partners that could provide unique CBRN defense solutions. “The nontraditional technology developers we reached out to presented either novel concepts or novel applications of existing technology and they were excited to respond to the new solutions we generated together,” said Wallace. “The Chemical Biological Center can also offer our industry and academic collaborators access to world-class advanced manufacturing, laboratory live agent testing and large-scale experimentation capabilities.”
A SIMPLIFIED PROCESS
The industry attendees were invited to submit a two-page white paper and a quad chart on the CBRN defense solution they could provide. The government received 192 submissions. From there, a diverse evaluation panel of government agency partners narrowed the submissions down to 44 that showed exceptional promise.
“It was one of the most straightforward processes my company has ever participated in,” said one of the participants, James Kehaya, director of the products business unit at Two Six Technologies, a 400-person company headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. “Formal requests for proposal tend to be very rigid, and it can cost a small business a lot of money to generate the proposal. With AIM, we simply put together a quad chart in PowerPoint and wrote a two-page concept paper. That was a really good format for us.”
In early May, the government invited the submitters of those 44 proposals to return to SOFWERX to pitch their proposed solutions in person. They were each given 45 minutes and were 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. Among the standouts were:
- A team of robots that autonomously conduct safety surveys. The proposal combines unmanned aerial vehicles with waterborne autonomous vehicles that would communicate with each other and work in concert using onboard sensors to identify and then sample areas suspected of chemical or biological contamination.
- An automated digital tool that surveils a global range of publicly available social media and dark web sites in all source languages using advanced analytics, natural language processing and machine learning to detect near-term CBRN threats.
- A lightweight, throwable or droppable mesh-networked sensor called a G-ball, designed to detect CBRN threats and convey the information back to a graphical user interface. Warfighters and operators could determine if an area were safe by simply throwing the ball from a vehicle window or dropping it from a drone at an altitude of up to 30 feet.
ADJUSTING TO THE PANDEMIC
At the beginning of June, SOCOM made its contract awards through SOFWERX and each of the winners was given, on average, six months to develop its technology to the point it could be demonstrated in a two-day showcase orchestrated by the DEVCOM Chemical Biological Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and AIM went virtual, just like the rest of the world.
Instead of a live demonstration, in the fall of 2020 each of the seven remaining technology companies had its own demonstration videotaped by AIM at various locations nationwide. In November, AIM organizers collected those demonstration videos and held a teleconference for the technology companies and 85 government partners. The technology companies virtually presented their videos and took questions from the government participants. The event gave the technology developers and the government partners a virtual forum in which they could refine concepts, reinforce existing collaborative relationships and in some cases start new ones.
AIM CONCEPT PROVEN
Now in its third year, AIM has proven its ability to open up new business opportunities for the participating technology developers, and to fully collaborate with government stakeholders and warfighters.
“AIM was our first contract with the DOD, and it helped focus our company direction by providing a specific application for the new technology we were developing, an autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle for CBRN surveillance. This kick-start helped us find more customers in the Air Force and other DOD branches,” said Fraser Kitchell, co-founder and CEO of KEF Robotics. “They are as much partner as customer, giving us insights into how to make our product better.”
According to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), the AIM acquisition model enabled the agency to find KEF Robotics, a company with the innovation needed for a project. KEF Robotics’ software represents a big step forward in countering weapons of mass destruction. It also may prove to be a real boon for the warfighter because it is autonomous and leaves the operator’s hands free. In the past, it would have been much more difficult for DTRA to find a company with this type of innovation.
The next round of technology development events will begin in late 2021 or early 2022, when participating technology companies will once again respond to problem sets and develop solutions to CBRN challenges. The cycle of deep industry and government collaboration facilitated by the AIM business model will thus be renewed and expanded.
For more information about the DEVCOM Chemical Biological Center, go to https://cbc.DEVCOM.army.mil.
BRIAN B. FEENEY, Ph.D., is a public affairs specialist at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Chemical Biological Center, where he writes news and feature stories on the science and engineering achievements of the center’s researchers. He has served as a communications specialist supporting various CBRN defense organizations at Aberdeen Proving Ground since 2000. He holds a Ph.D. in risk communication from Temple University, an M.A. in communications from Cornell University and a B.A. in history from Colorado College.