MIGHTY TACTICAL
Benjamin Newell

Air Force doubles down on drones

Program Executive Office Digital granted 13 drone technology contracts to innovative companies during a Pitch Day held July 24 at the Northeastern University Innovation Campus in Burlington.

The day-long event began with thirteen pitches from businesses, followed by deliberations by Air Force junior officers and civilians, who chose to award Phase 1 small business contracts to every Pitch Day participant. The afternoon included demonstrations from Northeastern University researchers, the Air Force Research Laboratory and two entrepreneurs selected earlier in the day.

"Hanscom Air Force Base plays a huge role in bringing small businesses, and their technology, into the fold for us," said Dr. Will Roper, the Air Force's assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics. "We must be better at working with the most innovative and creative companies in tech hubs like Boston, San Francisco and Austin (Texas)."


An autonomous drone follows Jose Martinez Lorenzo, associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Northeastern University, during the Air Force's Unmanned Aerial Systems Pitch Day, July 24, at the Northeastern University Innovation Campus in Burlington, Mass. The demonstration of autonomous drone technology was part of a day dedicated to bringing new and innovative companies into the Air Force to work on detecting, tracking, defeating and controlling drones and drone swarms.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Todd Maki)

Northeastern University facilities at the Innovation Campus provided the backdrop for presentations on small drones that can fit in tight spaces, like fuel tanks, and swarms of drones that can autonomously team up to track people and vehicles.

"We have ongoing efforts to form defensive capabilities against small drones," said Steven Wert, program executive officer Digital at Hanscom AFB. "That's an urgent need for the Air Force, and it's a very hard physics problem. What we don't want to do is acquire very expensive equipment to counter what is essentially a toy."

Wert's portfolio in PEO Digital is $19 billion. The more than 3,500 Airmen, civilians and support contractors work on Air Force priorities like counter-drone defense, software development and battle management technology. The Pitch Day selection panel mostly consisted of PEO Digital employees.

As a result of Unmanned Aerial Systems Pitch Day, and an earlier Pitch Day held in New York City in March, PEO Digital is working with nearly 30 innovative companies. Wert said his goal is to have 100 or more on contract with PEO Digital, targeting solutions to the Air Force's toughest problems.

UAS Pitch day awarded 13 companies $75,000 for a total of $975,000 in less than two-and-a-half hours. The fastest time to contract was 4 minutes and 30 seconds.

Featured Image — From Right: Jeff Finan, vice president of business development for Washington-based Echodyne Corp., presents radar technology information after earning an on-the-spot contract for development with the U.S. Air Force during Unmanned Aerial Systems Pitch Day, July 24, at Northeastern University's Innovation Campus as Steven Wert, program executive officer Digital, and Dr. William Roper, Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, look on from the stage. (U.S. Air Force photo by Todd Maki)