High-tech “sandbox” a place for Air Force SBIR companies, other small businesses, to make advancements

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Smoke billows from a downed helicopter while a group of Airmen search for the missing pilot. Above the rough terrain, dotted with rocks and debris, remotely piloted aircraft keep tabs on the rescue mission.

After finding the pilot trapped in a nearby building, the Airmen come under fire from a sniper.

While realistic, this search and rescue mission was actually a training exercise at Operation TECH WARRIOR 2016, a 10-day event held in August at the National Center for Medical Readiness in Fairborn, Ohio. Run by officials from the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, TECH WARRIOR combines combat simulations with technology demonstrations.

Ohio-based The Design Knowledge Co. brought its 4-D Common Operating Picture for Mission Assurance platform to TECH WARRIOR for the second consecutive year.  Also known as 4-D COP, the system developed under the Air Force Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program allows various information sources – such as video feeds, weather and GIS information – to be layered onto video displays for advanced situational awareness.

“You have to get yourself into this environment to truly test the feasibility of your concept,” said Eric Loomis, vice president of The Design Knowledge Co. “The big tenet of the SBIR program is to commercialize that technology and the only way you’re going to grow your company is to really understand how your technology can be used.”

Because of issues addressed with 4D-COP following last year’s TECH WARRIOR event, The Design Knowledge Co. was able to support fire, medical and security personnel at the 2015 Air Force Marathon – a situational awareness process that had been done manually until then.  Improvements made as a result of participating in TECH WARRIOR last year also allowed the company to pursue more Department of Defense opportunities and find ways to apply the system to other situations, such as infrastructure monitoring.

Loomis expects to bolster 4-D COP even more following this year’s TECH WARRIOR.

“With TECH WARRIOR, we get to embed our technology experts in the actual operational environment,” he said. “They get to sit with the warfighter and understand better how our tools and technology might be used. It allows us to experience things we hadn’t thought about.”

Stretching the limits

The idea behind TECH WARRIOR is to push the limits of promising new systems by getting companies to demonstrate them in a relevant setting. While it isn’t new, the event featured an even more realistic environment this year because of a pilot program to put additional infrastructure in place. The Air Force SBIR Program was one of the key investors in that effort. 

The new funding, for example, brought remotely piloted aircraft to the site so companies demonstrating their technology could plug into feeds coming from the RPA’s as they flew overhead.

Ohio-based Edaptive Computing brought several SBIR-supported technologies to demonstrate at TECH WARRIOR including HARVEST, which stands for Human and Cyber-Physical Agents for Recognition and Visualization of Systems Data.

HARVEST is designed to help analysts optimize information coming from sensors and other sources. It uses complex analytics to recommend the best course of action in situations, such as the most effective way to dispatch resources in a search and rescue mission.

“TECH WARRIOR allows us to better understand a lot of situations the warfighter is facing, understand what the real-world conditions are,” said Adam Langdon, director of research and development for Edaptive Computing. “I think we have a much better picture of how to target our solution and we’re already talking about potential integration with other technologies (at TECH WARRIOR) next year to do even more realistic demonstrations.”

Failure is an important tool

TECH WARRIOR offers companies the opportunity to “play” in an environment without the fear of their technology not working as planned. Organizers say failing at the event is acceptable because it shows what needs to be fixed and is the best way to mature products.

“We don’t mind if small businesses bring their technologies out and fail, because there is a lot to be learned from failure,” said Tom Rice, technology director for TECH WARRIOR and the integration lead for AFRL’s Plans and Programs Directorate. “It’s not about looking good in front of other people. TECH WARRIOR is about advancing science and technology research to support the warfighter.”

The bottom line is that TECH WARRIOR offers small businesses the opportunity to work alongside people and technologies in the closest thing to a combat environment.

Any small business, including SBIR companies, may participate in TECH WARRIOR by working with its government contact or by contacting AFRL’s Tom Rice at thomas.rice.10@us.af.mil.