WASHINGTON: AFWERX is eyeing the groundbreaking commercial technology market to decide what to invest in next, says Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper.
“We’re looking at a variety of areas,” he told reporters yesterday, including “hypersonics; commercial, quiet, supersonic flight; microelectronics; space.”
The project is designed as a follow-on to the service’s current Agility Prime project to bolster the commercial market for flying cars. Roper said he expects AFWERX to have chosen a new market niche by the end of the year.
As Breaking D readers know, under Agility Prime the Air Force is initially interested in mid-sized electric vertical take off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, with a first-flight goal of 2023. Some 50 vendors participated in the effort’s first Pitch Day in April. Proposals for research and development funds via the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program were due Aug. 10 from industry, with the Air Force envisioning an unspecified number of phase 1 awards at $150,000 in mid-October. Winning firms would be eligible for phase 2 awards, worth up to $750,000.
The creation of an institutionalized “Prime” program area within AFWERX is part of a larger reorganization to give the service’s innovation hub a stronger role in the acquisitions system. Roper announced the AFWERX 2.0′ restructure back in June. This included promoting Nathan Diller, who was responsible for launching Agility Prime, to AFWERX director and giving him direct reporting to Roper.
AFWERX now has three main branches:
- AFVentures, which is using almost $1 billion a year in Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and STTR funds to invest in startups as matching funds for private capital. Roper said that such investments were now bringing in matching funds at a 4 to 1 ratio. “The fact that the AFVentures process connects to the big ‘A’ acquisition system is what’s making private investors continue to raise their hands and want to determine how they bring more companies through it,” he said yesterday.
- Spark, the branch that is focused on encouraging and enabling individual airmen across the Air Force to bring new ideas to the table. “This is innovation at the edge. This is Airmen on the flight lines and operational centers that have ideas that need to get those back to the acquisition system so that they can be solved and quickly,” Roper explained.
- Prime, which according to the AFWERX website, was created “to rapidly drive affordable capability to the field” by investing in an emerging commercial market for innovative products that at the same time could enhance national security. “A ‘Prime’ initiative is all about moving a market or accelerating it, emphasizing it,” Roper explained, rather than investing in a single company or even a single design of something, he added.
Roper noted that he is considering next steps for both AFWERX and building the Air Force’s relationships with commercial industry — including the possibility of creating a new formal Program Executive Office (PEO).
“I think we need something like a PEO that is wholly focused on commercial enterprise. And AFWERX may get bigger, it may grow into becoming a full PEO. But I’m delighted to promote it into a bigger role in our organization. And I have full confidence that they’re going to live up to that trust,” he said.