JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas – The Air Force presented a $3 million Small Business Innovation Research program award to an Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center innovation project March 12.
The project uses drones and machine learning to revolutionize how the Air Force Civil Engineer Center collects data for its environmental mission. The initiative is powered by a partnership between AFIMSC, Air Force Innovation Hub Network (AFWERX) and Aerial Applications, a small business providing drone services and mapping software.
“This speaks to the ability we have to commit and work with a company,” said Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, in announcing the award. “The stakes couldn’t be higher and (this award) shows the type of agility and flexibility we have in the Air Force.”
The award represents AFIMSC’s first innovation partnership.
“We’ve achieved tremendous success very quickly, which could not have been possible without teammates who work well together,” said Marc Vandeveer, AFIMSC chief innovation officer. The innovation office stood up in November 2018, and the drone project was one of the first innovation initiatives the office pursued.
The SBIR award is part of the dual-use program encouraging small businesses to complete innovative federal research and development with the goal of creating scalable solutions with potential to benefit both the government and private industry. The competitive, awards-based program also provides the incentive to profit from commercialization.
The award, presented to Aerial Applications, brings the amount of government investments to $6 million over four years. Aerial Applications also secured $50 million in funding from industry and venture capitalists, raising the total investment to $56 million.
“The fact that this project won the award is a testament to the Air Force’s renewed focus on innovation and moving our capabilities forward with strong commercial partnerships and powerful execution of our dollars,” said Emilie Miller, a project manager in the AFIMSC Innovation Office.
AFIMSC and Aerial Applications began field testing the project last fall, flying an unmanned aerial system equipped with light detection and ranging, multi-spectral sensors and machine-learning algorithms to map, survey and inventory habitat for the golden-cheeked warbler at Camp Bullis, Texas.
Additional field tests at Camp Bullis are planned for late March. The initial project will expand to include other species and will be applied to more than 20 different uses in at least 12 locations, according to Vandeveer.
With the SBIR award and additional funding, Miller believes the technology will eventually be applied to many installation and mission support requirements outside of environmental management.
“Through our strategic partnership with Aerial Applications and their capabilities, we’re looking forward to proving this technology’s value and scalability across the Air Force,” she said. “We’re so excited. We have shown we can accomplish amazing things through perseverance, go-getter attitudes and making connections to find the right path forward.”