The Small Business Innovation Research program enables RDECOM to ride a wave of small business ingenuity to help the warfighter, bringing transformative technologies to existing programs at low cost.
by Mr. John O’Brien, Mr. Larry Bickford, Mr. Robert Auer,
Mr. Michael J. Statkus and Mr. Steve Olevnik
Small business involvement in Army technology procurement is thriving, and one place where that’s happening is the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM), in part through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program and the companion Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program.
SBIR, a governmentwide program, plays a big part in RDECOM’s engagement with small businesses, opening avenues to funding and ingenuity that RDECOM, a subordinate element of U.S. Army Materiel Command, would not have otherwise.
Congress created the SBIR program in 1982 to foster the involvement of U.S.-based small businesses with fewer than 500 employees in federal research and development (R&D). Each participating government agency with an extramural R&D budget of at least $100 million must reserve 2.5 percent of its extramural R&D budget for competitively selected SBIR awards to small businesses.
There are three phases to the SBIR program, and a request for proposals is issued three times a year. The goal of the program is to stimulate technological innovation, use small businesses to meet federal R&D needs, foster and encourage their participation in technological innovation and increase private-sector commercialization of innovations derived from federal R&D.
The deputy assistant secretary of the Army for research and technology (DASA(R&T)) is the executive agent for the Army’s SBIR program. DASA(R&T), in turn, has delegated administration of the SBIR program to the Programs and Engineering Office at HQ, RDECOM. The Army Research Office of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory administers the STTR program for the benefit of RDECOM and the rest of the Army science and technology and acquisition communities.
Like SBIR, STTR is a governmentwide program. Congress created it in 1992, and it launched in FY94 as a three-year pilot program, since reauthorized through FY17. The STTR budget is separate from SBIR’s; it is a percentage set-aside from the Army’s extramural R&D budget that increases every year. STTR is executed in essentially the same manner as SBIR, but with distinct differences:
- While STTR and SBIR have the same objectives, the STTR program requires participation by universities, federally funded R&D centers and other nonprofit research institutions.
- Each STTR proposal must be submitted by a team including a small business as the prime contractor, for contracting purposes, and at least one research institution. The small business must perform at least 40 percent of the work and the research institution(s) at least 30 percent; the remaining 30 percent of the work may be performed by either party or a third party.
The difference made by SBIR and STTR spans the breadth of RDECOM activities, from cutting-edge warfighting capabilities to more effective test and evaluation techniques and better components for major weapon systems. While not every SBIR or STTR project has a big impact, following are three success stories.
SMOKING OUT A SOLUTION
The Army has used smoke grenades since at least World War I. Recently, the Smoke & Target Defeat Branch of the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC), which is responsible for the development of obscurants, has breathed new life into old warfare technology by bringing in fresh perspectives in technological advances. The branch partnered with small technology firms from the private sector that are on the cusp of developing the next generation of obscurants.
Through the SBIR program at RDECOM’s ECBC, the Smoke & Target Defeat Branch, which is housed in the Toxicology and Obscurants Division at Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD, has partnered with small businesses around the country to solve complex problems. The Army SBIR Program Management Office usually allocates one or two SBIR projects a year to the Smoke & Target Defeat Branch.
Technical Team Chief Jim Shomo said that ECBC has benefited from several SBIR contracts. “We’re very fortunate. We have more of an inside track because we’ve had a consistently good experience with our SBIR partners. We’re maximizing our potential by leveraging this program,” Shomo said.
Facing budgetary constraints, as most governmental agencies do, ECBC has found the SBIR program to be a windfall. Business units like the Smoke & Target Defeat Branch can tap into some of the nation’s best technological minds at small technology firms without spending from their own budgets, because funds for these projects come directly from the SBIR program budget to the contractors who win the award.
The smoke grenade project focuses on developing nonexplosive dispersal technology for the Army’s obscurants to spread solid particulate aerosols. Obscurants are key to the warfighter’s ability to hide friendly forces, confuse the enemy and enhance survivability and lethality. But explosive dispersal can present some fragmentation hazards to friendly forces. Pyrotechnic dissemination can cause fires. An alternative but highly efficient and inherently hazard-reducing dispersal method is being sought for a nonexploding grenade.
The ECBC unit provides support to the project, such as managing the contract and testing the work; this effort is worth the information that ECBC receives from the project. ECBC is an information-based organization, and these projects provide data, research and other information that the business unit can share with other ECBC units across a spectrum of related projects and research efforts. Thus the SBIR program stretches not only ECBC’s budgetary dollars even further, but also the center’s programmatic reach.
The SBIR selection process is competitive. The Smoke & Target Defeat Branch has had as many as 46 and as few as 10 companies compete for a single contract. Some small companies partner with previous SBIR awardees who have complementary expertise; for example, an expert on a novel dissemination system may partner with the developer of an obscurant material or new testing techniques.
SBIR contractors bring new ideas and new technologies to the Army to modify or mature. For the smoke grenade project, ECBC’s scientists found that some of the competing firms had great technology but had no idea what makes a great obscurant, which was the goal of the SBIR contract. Those companies that contacted ECBC during the question-and-answer period received information on what makes a great obscurant and the program’s technological goals.
ECBC has defined various metrics and goals for its contractors. In the case of this dissemination technology, the main goal is to maximize the amount of particulate that is aerosolized in the air.
Shomo and his team of trained evaluators reached out to the SBIR community for alternative ways to spread the contents of the grenade. Their mission was to find small businesses with existing technology that the Smoke & Target Defeat Branch could use; or discover small tech firms with innovative solutions ready to move into the R&D stage.
“Small businesses are our engine of innovation for emerging capabilities such as vehicle electronics and safety systems, autonomous driving, robotics, modeling and simulation, vehicle light-weighting and energy-efficient technologies”.
SMALL BUSINESS STEPS UP
Hy-Tek Manufacturing Co., a small technology firm based in the Chicago area, won the Smoke & Target Defeat Branch contract and is currently in phase 2 of the program.
Phase 2 involves actual demonstration of a device or material that solves the problem stated in the contract. On average, this phase can take two to three years and cost up to $1 million in research funds provided to the contract by the SBIR program. The result is a prototype that ECBC can develop further or take to the Soldier community.
What set Hy-Tek apart from its competition was the company’s understanding of how to handle powders and aerosols. Hy-Tek is also driving toward the need for a compact system, which is a next step in the development process. The company also deserves credit for looking at practicalities: If the product has mostly standard parts, production is more cost-effective.
An obscurants project often will spawn complementary projects that can be competed separately under SBIR, creating even more opportunity. For example, another SBIR partner is developing a field test technique that can measure key cloud parameters in the field. That technique can be applied to future testing of Hy-Tek’s product.
SBIR partnerships are not just a coup for ECBC, but also offer a host of benefits to SBIR contractors. Contractors’ continual motivation to improve design throughout the process, as well as their willingness to have ECBC’s team help improve their firm’s processes, creates partnerships that produce results for both sides. The Army offers more rigorous standards for measuring progress than many civilian industries, and the small business partners find that these standards generate useful feedback. Ultimately, the resulting technology could be transitioned to a military materiel developer or commercialized for future sales by the company.
SBIR contractors also benefit from access to ECBC’s world-class infrastructure. Hy-Tek did modeling early on to observe the flow of gases and how they influenced obscurant dispersal, and was able to use ECBC’s testing chamber in December 2015 to test the accuracy of its models. ECBC encourages SBIR contractors to take advantage of its obscurant characterization facilities to gain technical feedback that will only improve the quality of the product provided to the government.
“We approach them as partners, and we have team spirit between us and our partners,” Shomo said.
A SBIR program participant is also bringing that entrepreneurial and team spirit to the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC) in Natick, MA, which is employing a new technology to improve computer modeling for human performance optimization.
NSRDEC, a subordinate organization of RDECOM, worked with Massachusetts-based TSE Inc. in a partnership developed through SBIR and STTR to improve the accuracy and functionality of present military modeling and simulation software, such as the Infantry Warrior Simulation. The SBIR project involved research to develop and implement methodologies and algorithms to address the impacts of encumbrance on Soldiers and small units (SSUs).
“Task-related encumbrance” is the impact that equipment, systems and environmental and operational factors have on SSU task performance and mission effectiveness, an element of the evaluation and assessment phase of the human performance optimization work. NSRDEC is the Army’s lead organization for human performance optimization.
“Encumbrances on SSUs impact task performance through a change in physiological state—for example, heat stress and hydration—or interference, such as limited field of view, and this can result in degraded performance,” said Thomas Gilroy, the NSRDEC team chief for SBIRs regarding simulation and modeling for acquisition, requirements and training technologies. (See Figure 1.)
Working with NSRDEC through February 2014, TSE developed a set of physiological representations for military modeling-and-simulation applications to enable researchers to study and answer critical questions about human performance and assess the operational costs of encumbrance. The collaborative effort resulted in an interactive Web application that uses military algorithms and methodologies to calculate the maximum speed a Soldier can move while carrying a load, based on research conducted in NSRDEC’s biomechanics laboratory.
“The integration of these new capabilities into simulation applications will enable military analysts and decision-makers to analyze the trade-off between the impact of equipment and operational environment and Soldier task performance. Having the ability to examine the task-related effects of encumbrance through the use of simulation models will further the goal of improving analysis capabilities for military decision-makers, ultimately contributing to the improvement of Soldiers’ survivability, sustainability, mobility, combat-effectiveness and quality of life,” said Gilroy.
Other applications developed by TSE calculate power usage and the total equipment and battery weight carried during a mission. Soldiers in the field typically carry more than 100 pounds of equipment, including nearly 20 pounds of batteries. Another TSE capability predicts the impact of encumbrance on task performance, and another feature computes a Soldier’s temperature based on environmental and human characteristics over time.
“This work is part of a larger, more comprehensive effort in human performance optimization, both at the Soldier and squad level. We are working with many collaborative partners and value the input and assistance we get from small business on this important project. The Small Business Innovation Research program and the Small Business Technology Transfer program are essential for our future success, especially in a resource-constrained environment,” said Douglas Tamilio, NSRDEC director.
The key benefits provided by this project have been more realistic Soldier agent behavior in the constructive modeling, simulation and analysis tools needed to study the impact of encumbrances on Soldier performance. This can be especially relevant as a planning aid to help commanders make better informed operational decisions before executing a mission. Additionally, the products can decrease the time required by analysts to build scenarios in constructive simulations such as the Infantry Warrior Simulation.
THINKING SMALL FOR BIG EFFECT
After launching a long-term science and technology strategy in 2013 based on the Army Operating Concept and other strategic documents, RDECOM’s U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) wanted to bring the full resources of industry to bear in supporting the Army’s vision for future ground vehicles while improving existing ground vehicles in the sustainment phase of their life cycle.
“Small businesses are our engine of innovation for emerging capabilities such as vehicle electronics and safety systems, autonomous driving, robotics, modeling and simulation, vehicle light-weighting and energy-efficient technologies,” said Dr. Paul Rogers, TARDEC’s director. “Our economic welfare and national security depend upon the creativity of people in these fields and the products and ideas they bring to the table.”
Smaller organizations also can readily tap into the creativity of their employees, who often bring a variety of experiences and technology expertise that differ considerably from Army personnel.
A case in point is Global Embedded Technologies Inc. (Global ET), a Michigan-based high-tech small business that creates and supplies power control electronics for military ground vehicle systems. Global ET is currently transitioning a SBIR-funded technology—a generator control unit essential to the upgraded smart power system in the Abrams tank—through General Dynamics Land Systems.
Mark Stanczak, the president and co-founder of Global ET, said, “We have an outstanding collaborative relationship with the Army technical community at TARDEC that has grown from the ability to interact with leadership at industry outreach events, especially TARDEC industry days and GVSETS,” the Ground Vehicle Systems Engineering and Technology Symposium. “These events allow us to align and validate our efforts with the Army’s current and future ‘big picture’ needs and to provide updates on our own internal initiatives and pursuits.”
An added bonus, Stanczak said, is simultaneous networking with vehicle program managers and original equipment manufacturers. “Global ET is always ready to collaborate with larger companies to create complete, robust solutions that can be rapidly integrated in support of our ultimate customer, the warfighter,” he said. “Communication across the boundaries of government and industry drives success for everyone involved.”
PULL QUOTE: “The integration of these new capabilities into simulation applications will enable military analysts and decision-makers to analyze the trade-off between the impact of equipment and operational environment and Soldiers task performance.”
Small businesses are agile. Less encumbered by bureaucracy than larger companies or other military or governmental agencies, small businesses can manage projects more efficiently because the contracted project is often their sole or primary contract. That enables them to focus on the client’s problem and needs.
More entrepreneurial in their thinking and approach, small technology firms are also effective in delivering solutions that might represent a high risk for a larger company. Smaller organizations also can readily tap into the creativity of their employees, who often bring a variety of experiences and technological expertise that differ considerably from Army personnel’s.
The SBIR and STTR programs allow small, high-tech U.S. businesses and academia the opportunity to deliver innovative R&D solutions to critical Army needs. Everyone benefits by capturing the talents of our agile U.S. small business community: DOD, the Army, the private sector and our national economy.
For more information, go to the Army SBIR website at https://www.armysbir.army.mil.
MR. JOHN O’BRIEN is the assistant director of the RDECOM Office of Small Business Programs, Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG), MD. He holds a B.S. in business management from Charter Oak State College and is a graduate of the Army Management Staff College. He is Level III certified in contracting and a member of the Army Acquisition Corps (AAC). He received the Maryland Small Business Administration – Unsung Hero Award in 2008.
MR. LARRY BICKFORD has been the business area manager for ECBC’s Smoke and Obscurants Tech Base Area, at the Edgewood Area of APG, since July 1994. He holds a master’s degree in engineering administration from George Washington University and a B.S. in chemical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
MR. ROBERT AUER is the Systems Analysis and Experimentation Team leader at NSRDEC. He holds an MBA from Babson College and a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the University of Cincinnati. He is Level III certified in engineering and Level II certified in systems planning, research, development and engineering – program systems engineer, and is a member of the AAC.
MR. MICHAEL J. STATKUS is an operations research analyst with the Systems Analysis and Experimentation Team in NSRDEC’s Warfighter Directorate. He holds a B.S. in computer science from American Sentinel University and a B.A. in English from Boston College. He is level III certified in engineering and is a member of the Delta Epsilon Tau International Honor Society.
MR. STEVE OLEVNIK is a member of the External Business Office at TARDEC in Warren, MI. A retired Navy commander with 20 years of experience in business engagement strategy, he has been a member of the TARDEC team for six years as a research and external business engagement leader. He holds an MBA from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and is a 1983 graduate of the United States Naval Academy.
This article was originally published in the January – March 2016 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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