Latest Small Business Tech Contracts Include Airborne AI, VR Training

Recent Department of the Air Force Small Business Innovation Research contracts include technology research and development projects ranging from artificial intelligence to edge computing to augmented reality.

As one of 11 federal departments that take part in the Small Business Innovation Research program, the Defense Department funds research and development by U.S. companies with fewer than 500 employees with the intent of speeding up the creation of “promising technologies that can help the Air Force accomplish its mission,” according to the Air Force’s SBIR website.

Phase I awards are usually $50,000 to $250,000, for either six months or a year, to give the company a chance to prove the idea’s “merit, feasibility, and commercial potential,” according to Phase II awards are usually $750,000 for two years. Phase III awards are to help the companies transition their SBIR-funded research and development into commercial products that may, in turn, become part of the defense supply chain. Phase III awards can’t be funded with dollars set aside for SBIRs—that money has to come from mission budgets or the private sector. 

“We have bolstered our relationship with nontraditional industry since partnering AFWERX with our Small Business Innovation Research Center of Excellence. We have awarded over 2,000 contracts worth $700 million dollars to 1,400 small businesses with over 75 percent of these being new partners to the Air Force,” Kristen Baldwin, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for science, technology, and engineering, told members of the House Armed Services subcommittee on cyber, innovative technologies, and information systems May 20. “Our SBIR contracts are also attracting matching funds, and performers are receiving follow-on investments at a ratio of $5 for every SBIR dollar that we invest.”

The SBIR program hasn’t yet posted all the recent awards on its website. Meanwhile, the Air Force’s latest solicitations for ideas are almost entirely in the area of artificial intelligence. 

From AI in the sky to augmented reality for flight, a roundup of some recent award announcements:

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence company SparkCognition Government Services of Austin, along with partner Intrinsic Enterprises, received an award to study “how AI can be used to optimize training programs and improve overall mission readiness,” according to a May 12 news release. 

“Through this contract, we’re exploring how to use skill and augment team members for the mission at hand—particularly in the case of improving pilot training,” said Logan Jones, SGS president and general manager, in the release.

Airborne Machine Learning

Intelligent Artifacts of New York received a Phase I award to conduct research and development in pursuit of “airborne machine learning that meets strict technical standards for safety in aviation,” according to an April 22 release that did not include the contract amount. “One of the most difficult hurdles in satisfying aviation safety standards is the ability to trace predictions back to source data.” Te company’s new category of “traceable machine learning” does just that, CEO Nick Cianciolo said in the release.

Edge Computing in Space

Loft Orbital of San Francisco received $750,000 under a Phase 2 contract through the Space and Missile Systems Center to build and test a prototype of a satellite data processor. The contract doesn’t cover a launch, but Brian Bone, Loft Orbital’s director of federal business development, told Air Force Magazine the company may independently pay to put the processor into space. Another $750,000 in private matching funds rounds out the total $1.5 million project. 

Bone described Loft Orbital’s business model as “mission agnostic” and “space infrastructure as a service.” The company arranges through a network of third parties the satellite buses—which have become so “commoditized” Bone now considers them a “supply chain item”—as well as mission payloads and launches. 

With an edge processor onboard, a satellite could start processing data before sending it on to a cloud, sorting through images of ships at sea, for example, to identify cruise ships, tankers, or fishing vessels. Or a fleet of military ships crossing the Taiwan Strait, Bone said.

Digital Engineering

Raft LLC of Reston, Virginia, received two Phase II contracts through AFWERX for automated software development and hardware-in-the-loop pipelines, according to a May 17 release.

The awards are meant to accelerate the goals of the Department of the Air Force’s Platform One cloud software development platform. “These pipelines will increase the availability and value of data generated by sensors and operational equipment in both connected and air-gapped environments,” according to the release. 

Supply Chain Security

Eclypsium of Portland, Oregon, received a Phase I SBIR through AFWERX to demonstrate whether its “enterprise device security platform” could protect against “vulnerabilities and threats hidden within devices,” according to a May 7 release, which did not provide the contract amount. 

“With ongoing supply chain attacks burying deep into critical information technology assets, little-known firmware and hardware components stand as some of the highest impact, most unguarded threats facing modeling organizations,” according to the release. 

Respiratory Monitoring

Linshom of Baltimore received a $748,000 Phase 2 SBIR through the Air Force to “advance sensor, software, and monitor technology” for a dual-purpose device to “practically deliver a respiratory profile to the patient bedside” with information including the patient’s respiratory rate, tidal volume, inspiratory/expiratory ration, minute ventilation, and rapid-shallow breathing index,” according to an April 29 news release.

“Dual purpose” refers to the applicability of the technology in the private sector as well as in the military. “Lack of comprehensive, portable and inexpensive continuous respiratory monitoring at the patient’s bedside is a major gap in clinical care as the vast majority of complications (75 percent) have a respiratory component,” according to the release. Battlefield uses may also prove feasible.

Immersive Flight Training

GridRaster of Mountain View, California, received an award through the Air Force for “large scale hyper-realistic immersive simulations and training of pilots and support crew,” according to a May 6 release, which included neither the contract phase nor amount. 

“The traditional pilot training environment is significantly expensive, not flexible, offline, not easily scalable, and comes with inherent risks,” according to the release. Augmented reality and virtual reality, on the other hand, “can be even more effective as it provides a near real-world combat operation environment.”

Augmented Reality Platform

BUNDLAR of Chicago received a Phase I contract through AFWERX to study a “no-code solution to create, edit, and access” augmented reality, according to an April 29 release that did not include the contract amount.  

Editor’s Note: The story headline was updated at 10:40 a.m. on May 21. The awards are contracts, not grants.