The high-tech Army is creating opportunities as small businesses play an increasingly pivotal role in the evolution of the tactical network, and sensible use of the SBIR program is a strong reason why.
by Ms. Nancy Jones-Bonbrest
It’s no secret that big business dominates the battlefield. Yet, as the Army turns its focus to an agile force, able to deploy on short notice to locations anywhere in the world—all while staying connected with uninterrupted mission command and situational awareness—small businesses are playing a pivotal role in the evolution of the tactical network.
They may not be as big as some of today’s industry giants, but in an ever-evolving high-tech Army, their strength lies in their dexterity.
To help give small business a fair shake and increase competition, thus providing better products at more competitive prices, the government is empowering them through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. This effort funds viable solutions to develop a capability in stages, often resulting in a targeted effort to meet a niche need that can be filled by small business.
A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE
While developing radios and testing them in the field, the Army’s Project Manager for Tactical Radios (PM TR) in the Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications – Tactical (PEO C3T) saw issues in radio performance, requirements, logistics and networking. PM TR worked to come up with new design ideas and to gain funding that was in line with the program schedule and maintenance. This proactive engagement, guidance and support in design and testing, along with identifying vendors who were up for the task, resulted in successful partnerships with small businesses.
Take the Army’s Rifleman Radio, a lightweight, rugged, handheld radio that allows dismounted Soldiers to communicate through voice and data beyond line of sight. Today, the fielded Rifleman Radios used by Soldiers require one antenna, but performance can vary depending on where the antenna is placed. The antenna works best when positioned high on the body. However, with this increased height comes the increased risk of snagging the antenna, as well as the chance that it could break in harsh environments.
In response to user feedback, PEO C3T sought out an antenna solution through the SBIR program. Each Army PEO can submit two Phase I SBIR topics annually. From there, small businesses produce white papers that are evaluated by a team of experts, who then choose two from the pool of responses. After careful analysis, the two choices are narrowed to one topic for Phase II prototyping.
For PEO C3T, a SBIR contract often answers the need for a specific capability that is part of a larger program. This allows the prime contractor to focus on the overall product while the SBIR targets a particular necessity that’s often based on user feedback.
“SBIRs provide the Army with a tremendous benefit,” said Michael Badger, chief for PEO C3T’s Futures, Systems Engineering and Architectures Branch. “Small businesses, through SBIRs, have the ability to focus on a particular aspect of a system and can utilize innovative methods to take some risks. Their expertise in that niche area can make a big difference.”
In the case of the Rifleman Radio antenna, the SBIR selection process resulted in a flexible, body-conforming antenna developed by Massachusetts-based MegaWave Corp. “By utilizing SBIRs in concert with the standard acquisition process, we can get the state of the art, we can get improvements in our performance and we can reduce costs,” Badger said. “It’s a risk-balancing approach. You still have the prime program going on, but you also have a subject-matter expert and an alternative perspective that is on the cutting edge, as an infusion into a program.”
For MegaWave, a company of fewer than 10 employees, the SBIR program helped level the playing field. Once they had their foot in the door, it was a matter of doing what they do best as a small company: moving quickly.
“Just the way small businesses work—we like to keep things moving,” said John Yorko, senior antenna and radio frequency systems engineer for MegaWave. “With large companies, it takes a long time for them to get things done. We can make it happen quickly. We don’t have the same level of bureaucracy and we don’t have to go through layers of internal permissions. We can just go.”
MegaWave’s Body-worn Conformal Antenna (BCA) works seamlessly with the Rifleman Radio, providing a flexible, durable antenna that conforms and clips securely to uniforms, so Soldiers can maneuver through any obstacle they might encounter. In preliminary tests, the antenna also increases the range of the radio in the majority of cases.
With positive assessment results, the Army is now procuring approximately 70 BCAs for additional assessment, and MegaWave is working on a new SBIR project to produce a vehicle-mounted Mobile User Objective System ultra-high frequency satellite communications antenna, which provides users with secure voice and data on demand. Yorko said the key to success with the BCA was establishing open communications with both the prime and the contracting officer’s representative.
“Being able to coordinate with the prime contractor on the testing was very important and valuable,” Yorko said. “We were given unlimited access with their engineering folks so we could get our questions answered, and that was key.”
WHERE SBIRS FIT IN
SBIRs were created to stimulate technological advancement by increasing small business participation in federally funded research and development projects. The three-phase competitive process allows proposals to be submitted in response to DOD solicitations. With SBIRs, the Army can see what the leading edge of research is. They allow an environment where the Army can meet with industry, discuss specific technological needs, evaluate pioneering concepts and, if viable, choose a solution that shows promise.
For example, when the Army needed a networking solution to enhance situational awareness and information sharing during severe conditions with poor connectivity, PEO C3T turned to a SBIR. Currently in Phase II, the Robust Command and Control Networking (C2NET) capability provides a robust multicast solution by linking disconnected communications to the most direct, clear network path. Without C2NET, the network would simply restart using the same prior path instead of the fastest or clearest path that saves time and troubleshooting efforts.
And when a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connection was needed between the Army’s newest waveform radios and the Soldier’s smartphone-like end user device (EUD), a SBIR with Arizona-based DataSoft Corp. produced SideBridge, which attaches directly to the radio and wirelessly expands the personal area network communications. With SideBridge, a Phase II SBIR, a hardware module provides Bluetooth connectivity between the radio and EUD for the wireless transfer of images, messaging and video.
Vik Patel, chief executive officer for DataSoft, said that without question, SBIRs allow small businesses to develop a capability and expand product offerings.
“SBIRs are very valuable and have increased our recognition by customers and put us in touch with both prime contractors and government to develop technology at a lower cost and in a shortened time,” Patel said. “They also let us develop technology and capabilities without a loss of control of the company or having to borrow money.”
Often, SBIRs can be used to fill a very specific need. For example, an additional requirement arose in the case of the Rifleman Radio: the need for a GPS selective availability anti-spoofing module (SAASM), more easily understood as a military-level encrypted GPS.
There are a few companies that are authorized to develop SAASM receivers. The Massachusetts-based Mayflower Communications Company Inc., the only small business among them, developed a competitively-priced NavAssure SAASM dongle that can attach to the radio.
“Before Mayflower, the SAASM receivers were bulky, expensive and used a lot of power,” said Naresh Babu Jarmale, vice president of engineering for Mayflower. “We developed one of the smallest SAASM receivers in the world, leveraging the technology developed under a Navy-sponsored SBIR program. Because of this technology, it is now possible to integrate SAASMs into smaller systems like Soldier tactical radios and other small platforms.”
Jarmale said that in order for a small business such as Mayflower to compete, SBIR programs are essential.
“With SBIR funding, that’s where a lot of innovation happens,” Jarmale said. “It is still competitive among all the small companies, but if you are good at it, you will be able to develop superior technologies and superior products. We have used technologies out of SBIR programs and developed successful products.”
FROM INNOVATION TO PRODUCT
If there is a challenge when it comes to SBIRs, it’s the time involved to develop a mature product. Even though the pace is faster than for most Army acquisition programs, often it’s not fast enough for a small business that needs a constant infusion of funding to stay viable.
“As a small business, we have to work with the government and prime companies to integrate our products into systems,” Jarmale said. “The biggest hurdle to overcome is they want mature products. Unless there’s enough funding and desire from the government or the platform primes to help move the innovative technologies to maturity, there’s very little chance they’ll get picked up. There should be more support to assist small businesses in transitioning capabilities, especially when you see very promising technologies developed in SBIRs.”
Patel agreed, saying that funding to offset the time lapse is often unavailable for small businesses.
“The downside is the time it takes for a SBIR to be developed and enter into production,” Patel said. “There’s a backlog and there’s no funding after a product is developed, so many SBIRs have died.”
This feedback from small businesses is being heard. The delay between Phase II, when the SBIR funding ends, and the product’s development into an existing capability or program of record can be as long as 12 to 24 months—a relatively short time period by Army acquisition standards, but not in the fast-moving world of small businesses.
“Army requirements drive funding,” Badger said. “If it’s a small business, that process may take a year or two, and they have to try to bridge that. However, an advantage of this process is that small businesses maintain the intellectual property, and many times these innovations find dual use in the military and commercial worlds. If they can ‘productize’ their product into the commercial space, that’s one way to bridge the time gap.”
The network is an integral part of current and future Army missions. Keeping pace with technology requires new approaches, and small businesses can play a vital role. SBIRs are one such approach. They give small businesses insight into military markets, which they traditionally would not have.
Small businesses also receive development funds to produce prototypes of their enhanced concepts. Through this unique step, the Army plays a role similar to that of a venture capitalist, with small businesses receiving feedback on their prototypes that can assist them in being first to market with a proven solution. Additionally, because the Army allows them to retain the intellectual property rights for their products, small businesses have the opportunity to commercialize products with dual use for military and civilian applications. Thus, a small company with a great idea can grow into a producer of state-of-the-art capabilities.
By introducing these products first and putting them into the hands of Soldiers, the Army also benefits from SBIRs. As the collaboration between small businesses and the Army continues through the use of SBIRs, cutting-edge capabilities can be incorporated into established programs, empowering the joint force with the most technologically effective tools available.
For more information, see the PEO C3T website at http://peoc3t.army.mil/c3t/.
MS. NANCY JONES-BONBREST is a staff writer for DSA Inc., providing contract support to PEO C3T. She holds a B.S. in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park. She has covered the Army’s tactical network for several years, including multiple training and testing events.
This article was originally published in the January – March 2016 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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