OUSD (R&E) CRITICAL TECHNOLOGY AREA(S): Advanced Computing and Software, Human-Machine Interfaces, Microelectronics, Trusted AI and Autonomy
OBJECTIVE: The objective of the Autonomous Systems at Scale Open SBIR topic is to develop autonomous systems that remove service members from dangerous environments and speed manual-labor tasks to enable paradigm-shifting tactics.
DESCRIPTION: The DoD’s ability to maintain a global presence currently requires intensive manpower focused on well-defined and sometimes monotonous tasks. Autonomous solutions can be powerful force multipliers, reallocating the burden of these tasks to machines and decreasing risks to personnel. For example, Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) operations often involve a human technician following written instructions to execute procedures on well-understood ordnance, either by hand or by remotely operating Unmanned Systems (UxS). Removing humans from the blast radius will not only decrease risk but also allow personnel to prioritize novel first-seen threats.
Developing autonomous solutions for well-defined problems comes with a range of challenges that differ by domain. For example, ground-based systems can encounter environmental obstacles while interacting with clutter, aerial vehicle utility is often limited by power capacity, and unmanned underwater vehicles suffer from communications limitations. Additionally, fielded systems often do not have interoperable architectures.
DARPA solicits technologies to address the critical limitations of creating autonomous solutions for well-defined problems. Examples of technologies of interest include but are not limited to systems that:
1. Build or repair damaged infrastructure (e.g., repairing many blast craters in parallel and with minimal human oversight).
2. Decrease the operator-to-robot ratio in UxS response operations (e.g., allowing a single operator to quickly neutralize large numbers of explosive threats in a near-peer conflict).
3. Reduce the manpower requirements of physical burdens (e.g, unloading cargo at an expeditionary base).
Strong proposals will identify a critical limitation to scalable autonomy, then design a system and/or component that overcomes the problem. Proposers should identify metrics that compare the proposed concept with the deployed state of the art. The aim of the solicitation is to create an unclassified prototype that is ready for field testing at the end of Phase II. Submissions solely focused on software or solely focused on hardware without significant autonomy are not of interest, nor are proposed solutions in the areas of kinetic effects or intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Systems developed should be robust and maximize operational availability.
An initial white paper describing the technical approach is required and will be screened for responsiveness to the topic. The technical white paper should include an overview of the proposed concept with details to support feasibility. The overview should address the bullets below listed in order of importance:
- Proposed system: Describe the proposed system. Outline the design and operation of the main hardware and software components that are being proposed for development and if applicable, which parts of the system are COTS.
- Concept of Employment: Identify how the proposed system could be employed. Provide details on the problem the autonomous system is addressing and the prevalence of this problem. What metric does the proposed solution improve, and by how much?
- Scalability: Provide a brief analysis of the feasibility of scaling the system across the DoD and industry. Are the production costs low enough to merit widespread adoption? Is the system sufficiently autonomous that large-scale deployment wouldn’t require significant training or human labor? What are the projected maintenance requirements, operational availabilities, and service lifetimes?
PHASE I: Companies will complete a feasibility study that demonstrates the firm’s competitive technical advantage relative to other commercial products (if other products exist) and develop concept plans for how the company’s technology can be applied to more efficiently scale autonomous capability. Studies should clearly detail and identify a firm’s technology at both the individual component and system levels, provide supporting literature for technical feasibility, highlight existing performance data, showcase the technology’s application opportunities to a broad base of customers outside the defense space, a market strategy for the commercial space, how the technology directly increases the prevalence of autonomous capability as well as include a technology development roadmap to demonstrate scientific and engineering viability. Proposers should recommend quarterly technical milestones that will be used to demonstrate their progress to DARPA throughout Phase I. These milestones will also be accompanied by monthly financial and technical summary reports.
At the end of Phase I, the company will be required to provide a formal proposal in writing, to include quarterly milestones, defining how their technology would be developed and implemented into relevant concepts of operation. A commercialization roadmap will also be required to demonstrate a high probability that continued design and development will result in a Phase II mature product. For example, a proposal that addresses infrastructure repair might describe how the solution(s) would be employed in expeditionary military construction operations, how it nests into a broader commercial need, and specify what performance metrics (threshold and objective) would demonstrate system viability.
PHASE II: Produce prototype solutions that enable mission essential tasks. These products will be provided to select DoD units for further evaluation by personnel. In addition, companies will provide a technology transition and commercialization plan for DOD and commercial markets.
PHASE III DUAL USE APPLICATIONS: Components and/or systems could be applied to scale autonomy in multiple industries, including but not limited to, those within the energy and construction sectors that leverage UxS in survey or infrastructure development tasks. These same technologies have DOD application in the air, ground, and underwater domains. The business will transition the solution to provide expanded mission capability for a broad range or potential Government and civilian users and alternate mission applications.
- B.N. Diggs et al., “Automated Construction of Expeditionary Structures (ACES)” US Army Corps of Engineers Engineer Research and Development Center/Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (ERDC/CERL TR-21-6). February 2021.
- K. Song and P.C. Chu. “Conceptual Design of Future Undersea Unmanned Vehicle (UUV) System for Mine Disposal.” IEEE Systems Journal, Vol 6, 2012
KEYWORDS: Unmanned Systems; Autonomy; Robotics; Logistics; Artificial Intelligence, Autonomous Logistics; Autonomous Construction; Infrastructure Survivability