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Event provides opportunity for Air Force SBIR/STTR companies, other small businesses, to refine technology

By Joe Cogliano, Contractor, Air Force SBIR/STTR Program | Oct. 4, 2017

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – On a blazing hot afternoon, Air Force pararescue specialists are called to the scene of an attack. They arrive to find two people down, burned and bleeding. One is pinned under a rock and neither is responsive. 

Also known as PJs, the highly-trained combat rescue medics work methodically to save the pair. The rescue mission itself comes under attack, which is quickly thwarted, and within minutes the PJs have stabilized and removed the wounded. 

A few hundred yards away, support vehicles are being tracked by Springboro, Ohio-based 361 Interactive. 

The company’s computer vision technology, developed with support from the Air Force SBIR/STTR Program, is used to scan full-motion video and to detect and track vehicles of both friendly forces and potential adversaries. The underlying technology is similar to that used in facial recognition software. 

Being able to determine where the vehicles of adversaries have stopped is critical, for example, as those locations may have been lined with dangerous traps. 

While both scenarios offered large doses of realism, they recently happened as part of the annual Tech Warrior event produced by the Air Force Research Laboratory. Tech Warrior – held at Wright State University’s National Center for Medical Readiness in Fairborn, Ohio – combines combat simulations with technology demonstrations. 

The event allows AFRL scientists to observe, and sometimes even step into the warfighter role, which provides a more holistic perspective for those returning to the lab to develop technologies. Additionally, a unique spinoff of Tech Warrior is that it allows small businesses such as 361 Interactive to push the limits of promising new systems by integrating them in a relevant setting.  

The initial algorithms used by 361 Interactive to “train” its detection technology were based on simulated circumstances. Participating in Tech Warrior gave the company access to live video feeds, which were more realistic and less time consuming than artificially creating the data needed to refine the system. 

“It’s an excellent opportunity,” said Thom Beresford, chief technology officer for 361 Interactive. “This also gives us the picture of what humans actually do with these trucks and how the warfighters interact with the system. That feedback is invaluable to us.” 

Last year, Cincinnati, Ohio-based Eccrine Systems Inc. collected sweat from Tech Warrior participants to analyze dehydration indicators. This year, the company brought its wearable sweat sensor to the event to capture real-time data on dehydration from those participating in combat simulations. 

That information – combined with an Air Force SBIR/STTR contract that allowed Eccrine Systems to perform a clinical study involving dehydration biomarkers – will help the company develop the next generation of its sensor. 

“This sensor technology came out of early collaboration with the military,” said Gavi Begtrup, CEO of Eccrine Systems. “Developing tools that can be used to keep the warfighter safe is great, but we don’t know how well they work until we really put them on people and see them in action. Being able to deploy this on more than 50 people, in real time and in real-world situations, is something that’s normally very hard to do as a small business.” 

Centerville, Ohio-based Functional Formularies brought its next-generation MREs – meals ready to eat – to Tech Warrior. The company took about two years of research and development to get two flavors of MREs and a nutritional supplement to the level of being ready for this kind of test, said Brian McGee, chief operating officer of Functional Formularies. 

Functional Formularies touts its products are based on whole foods, contain a high amount of healthy fat and have no added sugar. Tech Warrior allowed the company to gather taste and performance feedback from an ideal set of users in a realistic environment. 

“Do they have more energy? Do they feel like their body systems are supported by these? That’s really what we’re looking for,” McGee said. “The potential for us to learn in this environment is endless.” 

The upside of Tech Warrior is that businesses get to “play” in an environment without the fear of their products and services 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 and technology. 

A wide range of technologies were integrated or demonstrated at the event, according to Tom Rice, technology director for Tech Warrior and the integration lead for AFRL’s Plans and Programs Directorate. This includes everything from a product to help those in the field carry equipment more efficiently and with less injury to new medical training devices. 

“Businesses can try out their technology in a simulated, deployed environment and they have a really unique opportunity to access a broad spectrum of customers,” Rice said. “They can also benefit from the feedback of all of the other technology teams that are out here. The whole idea is that for businesses, this environment is low threat and high value.” 

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 companies involved in the Air Force SBIR/STTR Program, may participate in Tech Warrior by working with its government contact or by contacting AFRL at afrl.tech.warrior@us.af.mil.

The Air Force SBIR/STTR Program and its small business partners strive for advancements that support major commands and meet near-term critical needs while filling the pipeline with potential game-changing technologies. In stressing innovation over invention, the program works to drive down costs, get the best new technology to the warfighter and boost the economy through small business growth.

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