WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army is tapping nontraditional businesses to tackle the challenge of future robotic combat vehicle sustainment, according to a statement from the Army Applications Laboratory.

The AAL is establishing a cohort of innovators “who can develop hardware and software components around sensors and sensor data to gather, fuse and interpret RCV sustainment requirements and operational capabilities in order to deliver actionable information to decision makers,” the May 6 statement noted.

The Army has a history of not planning for or thinking much about sustainment during the development phase of programs, instead attempting to solve how to manage systems after they are fielded. The service, as it modernizes, is trying to take entire life cycles into account from the beginning. Savings in both cost and time could result from planning sustainment strategies alongside development.

The Army Applications Lab, which is part of Army Futures Command, serves as an interface with businesses that may not have much experience in the defense world but have technology with useful military applications.

“AAL’s Cohort Program is similar to an accelerator, similar to a hackathon, similar to traditional acquisitions, but none of those things by itself. It brings together businesses that don’t usually work with the [Department of Defense] and focuses them on solving a specific Army problem,” the statement read. “They work side by side with soldiers and with a community of Army experts and stakeholders on a shared learning journey.”

The Cohort Program launched several efforts over the past year. The Army began its Field Artillery Autonomous Resupply cohort in January 2020 to improve the currently cumbersome, taxing and sometimes risky munitions resupply system for field artillery units operating M109 Paladin howitzers.

And last month, the Army picked five small businesses to build prototypes intended to help increase the rate of fire of self-propelled howitzers as well as in future systems. The SPARTN Fire Faster will feed into an overall effort to increase the rate of fire and smooth out the process of loading artillery pieces.

SPARTN stands for Small Business Innovation Research-based Special Program Awards for Required Technology Needs, which is the contracting mechanism used to launch the program.

More recently, the AAL launched its Power Transfer Cohort to develop ways to power electric vehicles in austere, remote locations. The Army chose six companies to come up with plans, which the companies will present to the service this month.

The Army knows robotic combat vehicles will play an important role in the ecosystem of ground operations, and it is developing light, medium and heavy RCVs to fight alongside optionally manned or manned combat vehicles in the formation.

The AAL plans to host a webinar for interested companies on May 25. Companies will be able to submit proposals from June 3 through June 23.

Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.

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