Wright Patterson Air Force Base –
ORLANDO, FL: Between April 25 and April 28, representatives from all divisions of AFWERX attended AUVSI Xponential 2022, an advanced air mobility (AAM) convention that took place at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, FL.
The Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) is “the world’s largest nonprofit dedicated to the advancement of uncrewed systems, robotics, and autonomy,” and the organization features professionals from 60+ countries.
The annual convention, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, focused on the theme “Where Autonomy Meets Society”, a key objective addressed by Agility Prime’s mission to accelerate emerging markets by teaming government resources with commercial ventures. Over 500 vendors gathered in the exhibition space, while over 200 panels, sessions, and workshops–attended by various stakeholders including international companies, large and small businesses, eVTOL developers, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other regulators, and more–took place upstairs.
The AFWERX booth featured representatives from Agility Prime partners Talyn Air and Elroy Air, companies developing eVTOL aircraft on contract with AFWERX. Agility Prime representatives interacted with multiple companies in attendance, expanding their industry engagement and exploring new areas, such as autonomy approaches, hydrogen, and other power sources for next generation systems.
Day 1 (April 26) began with an operations panel discussion on autonomy put on by the Vertical Flight Society (VFS), which Agility Prime Program Manager and Technology Transition Lead Sterling Alley participated in. Alley gave a high-level brief of Agility Prime goals, statistics, and potential use cases, responding to questions about how the Air Force can help advance vertical flight by partnering with small businesses to breach the valley of death.
“It’s this continuous iterative cycle of engaging the warfighters, understanding their needs, modeling those needs against the aircraft, and testing it in the real world, so we can do that learning and prove the use cases,” Alley said to describe the Agility Prime process.
When asked how Agility Prime faces the challenge of actually integrating these new technologies into the DOD, Alley said, “The biggest obstacle we face is our mentality. We have trained ourselves to be accepting to a 15-year cycle for the development of capabilities. Agility Prime is here to show that all those boundaries we place on ourselves can be overcome to field a capability in three years.”
Later that afternoon, AFWERX Senior Manager of Strategic Innovation and Partnerships Darshan “Dash” Divakaran moderated an AFWERX panel entitled “How Industry and Academia can Partner with the USAF,” which featured Verenice Mondragon-Jaimes from the Spark division, Nicole Quattrociocchi from Orbital Prime and SpaceWERX, and Major James Colraine, Head of Engagements for the AFVentures division.
“The whole idea is using capital as a capability to try to make the acquisition process quicker,” Maj Colraine said of the AFWERX approach through AFVentures, the SBIR/STTR arm of the organization.
The panelists also discussed the Open Topic approach, a revolutionary AFWERX model that democratizes DOD procurement and contracting by loosening proposal requirements, thus allowing small businesses to provide creative solutions to Air Force problems. “We’re not going to be so prescriptive of the solutions we’re looking at; we want industry to bring their best ideas to us,” said Quattrociocchi.
On Day 2 (April 27), Divakaran again moderated a panel discussion on Air Force partnerships and the future of advanced air mobility (AAM) and autonomy. Seated on this panel were Prime Division Chief Lt Col Thomas Meagher, Jean Charles (JC) Lede of AFRL, and Parimal Kopardekar of NASA. Lt Col Meagher gave a brief overview of the Prime mission and touched on key milestones since Agility Prime’s launch two years prior, on April 27, 2020.
“We want commercial success, but we want to figure out how to use [these technologies] from the DOD perspective as well,” Lt Col Meagher said. “At this point, we have four different companies that have gone through the airworthiness process, and that’s important, because it really highlights the ability to transition some of those lessons learned and approaches to future FAA certification.”
Lt Col Meagher also emphasized the stand-up of Detachment 62 alongside the Air Education Training Command as a major step in Agility Prime’s progress. “No matter what we do on the technology development side, if we don’t have the people or the processes in place to actually certify people to use them, we will be at a significant disadvantage to see if they’re actually feasible throughout the operations we want to use them for.”
On the final day of the convention, Divakaran was awarded Chapter Leader of the Year, recognized among 35 chapters worldwide. Divakaran founded the North Carolina branch of AUVSI in 2019 and has since served as its chapter president. Additionally, he has been affiliated with the AUVSI organization as a speaker since 2017.
“It is an honor and also incredibly gratifying to be acknowledged for my efforts among my peers,” Divakaran said. “The chapter has been in existence for only three years, but has received five awards so far. This shows leadership, team effort and consistency.
This year’s expo saw an estimated 6,500 attendees, making it a successful networking event for the AFWERX organization.