WASHINGTON — The future of defense technology is in autonomy, the Air Force says, and the service wants to find out what industry can bring to the table.

AFWERX, the Air Force office in charge of finding new and innovative ways to use technology, has set up a new program called Autonomy Prime to learn about the autonomous technologies companies have under development — and how the military could adapt them for its missions.

Autonomous systems use technologies such as artificial intelligence to manage them and make decisions normally handled by a human.

Several of Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall’s top priorities would rely on greater use of these capabilities. In an Oct. 28 interview with Defense News, Lt. Col. Tom Meagher, chief of AFWERX’s Prime division, said Kendall’s emphasis makes clear how important this technology will be to the service in coming years.

So far, the Air Force and industry’s work on autonomy has mostly focused on small unmanned aerial vehicles. Think the “collaborative combat aircraft” program to create drone wingmen flying alongside fighters or Golden Horde’s research into swarming drones.

But eventually, Meagher said, the Air Force wants to get autonomy into larger platforms and other kinds of vehicles. This could include using autonomous technologies to steer spacecraft or ground vehicles, he said, or to control other programs and systems such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensors.

“The exciting and interesting thing about autonomy is that there are many, many different applications,” Meagher said. “That’s why we said hey, what are these core functions that could apply across these mission areas? It could be … there’s a lot of stuff [commercial companies are] doing out there in the sensing piece that could help us out with that ISR mission.”

He said AFWERX’s Prime model can provide a low-risk, low-cost way for the Air Force to hone autonomous technology and pave the way for new uses for it.

“A lot of stuff we’re going to do, right off the bat, will benefit multiple Air Force programs down the line,” Meagher said.

Prime programs don’t work like a traditional acquisition program, where the government says what it wants and then awards a contract to a company to build it. Instead, this approach asks companies — often firms outside of the typical defense industrial base — what capabilities they’re already working on, and how they could be adapted to the military’s needs. AFWERX has already used this model to advance electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing vehicle technology under its Agility Prime program.

In September, AFWERX released a request for information for Autonomy Prime; it closed Oct. 31. Meagher said interest was high, and attracted proposals from big companies, small firms, and everything in between, though he would not identify any of the companies that submitted pitches.

“It’s not just small business,” Meagher said. “We want to cast a wide net across all of industry and have an ability to work with all sizes of business.”

And AFWERX can provide testing infrastructure, airspace, or other government resources that could help industry with their efforts, Meagher said.

The RFI said the Air Force plans to create “a purpose-built autonomy testing and development facility,” dubbed the AFWERX Proving Ground, which will let firms demonstrate, test and develop their technologies side-by-side with Air Force personnel.

According to the RFI, AFWERX hopes to refine its transition pipeline to speed the process for fielding these technologies, whether as part of larger programs of record or directly provided to warfighters.

AFWERX has contacted other Air Force organizations, as well as the Navy, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, NASA, and the FAA, to discuss how to work together on autonomous projects.

Next, AFWERX will go through the submissions and figure out where industry’s offerings might line up with something the Defense Department is working on. AFWERX expects to have finished reviewing the submissions and to send companies solicitations in early 2023, Meagher said.

AFWERX plans to release solicitations in phases, with each phase focusing on specific capabilities.

But AFWERX wants this program to move fast. Meagher said the plan is to have autonomous capabilities in hand in 2023, so the office can start testing and maturing the technology.

Meagher declined to detail Autonomy Prime’s budget, but said it operates within Agility Prime’s budget. He said the cost of individual programs could range from thousands of dollars to low millions. And because the government can offer valuable in-kind resources such as testing infrastructure, Meagher said some companies may not charge AFWERX and simply take advantage of the opportunity to test their technology.

And Meagher is confident a company will bring a fresh and innovative idea no one has thought of before.

“We will be surprised,” he said. “We want our socks to be knocked off.”

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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