The AUVSI NE UAS and AAM Summit, held at the Northeastern University Innovation Campus, took place last week with an impressive lineup.
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Among the speakers offering a rare opportunity for an open discussion was Lt. Col. Thomas F. Meagher, Division Chief, AFWERX Prime, Department of the Air Force. AFWERX is one of the military agencies most actively supporting and investing in new unmanned technology companies, helping startups reach commercial viability and scale through investment, testing, and other services.
AFWERX was started as an adjunct to the Small Business Investment Research (SBIR) program for tech transfer. The goal is clear: to invest in emerging technologies to expand warfighting capabilities. Along the way, AFWERX is investing in technologies that are rapidly entering the commercial space and framing the development of the unmanned industry. From the industry perspective, AFWERX is providing much needed investment and support for domestic emerging technologies. For the military, AFWERX is making the connection between technology startups and US government customers – and working to expand the startup mentality of creative problem solving within the service.
“We’ve been a startup within the DoD,” says Lt. Col. Thomas F. Meagher. “We’re looking at how can we get involved with emerging technologies early, to establish that US industrial base. And, we’re also looking at innovation culture and how we bring a different mindset to what we do.”
Supporting innovation in the drone industry
AFWERX invests in emerging technologies to expand US warfighting capabilities. Officially, “AFWERX accelerates agile and affordable capability transitions by teaming innovative technology developers with Airman and Guardian talent.” In practical terms, the multiple divisions of AFWERX are supporting an entire ecosystem of drone technology, working with companies that may have one specific capability the military needs in their offering, and helping them to develop, test, and scale their companies to operational success and commercial viability.
The Air Force has very well defined operational imperatives, the priorities they’ve established for developing warfighting capabilities. Number 4 is Tactical Air Dominance, and the Air Force recognizes that integrated unmanned systems are a critical component of the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) strategy. Most of the operational imperatives touch on the drone industry ecosystem: AI and machine learning, space capabilities, command and control, communications, cyber capabilities, augmented and virtual reality.
Taking Lessons from Innovative Startups
AFWERX has gone beyond just supporting industry, taking some of the lessons learned from an innovative startup mindset and bringing them into the Air Force. The AFWERX Spark program connects Airmen and Guardians to startups for collaboration so that they can exchange information about real world scenarios and testing opportunities.
Spark Cells are a decentralized network of bases empowered to execute on locally generated ideas and projects. “Colliders” are events sponsored to bring entrepreneurs, warfighters, and experts together to discuss current challenges. Maker Spaces, Innovation Cells, and Challenge projects all provide opportunities for Airmen and Guardians to collaborate with startups and share a mindset of creative development.
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Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has penned over 3,000 articles focused on the commercial drone space and is an international speaker and recognized figure in the industry. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
For drone industry consulting or writing, Email Miriam.
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