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By Elan Head

An award-winning journalist, Elan is also a commercial helicopter pilot and an FAA Gold Seal flight instructor with helicopter and instrument ratings. Follow her on Twitter @elanhead

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U.S. Air Force will fund research into tech that enables eVTOL aircraft

The U.S. Air Force is looking to fund research into “deep tech” for eVTOL aircraft through its next round of Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) contract awards.

The focus on technology research is one more aspect of Agility Prime, the Air Force’s effort to accelerate development of the commercial eVTOL industry with the goal of establishing U.S. dominance in this emerging field. Speaking during an Agility Prime webinar on July 1, Dr. Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, suggested that the Air Force could help fill a funding gap left by Silicon Valley investors who have increasingly prioritized software enterprises that promise faster returns.

“We want to take risk by investing in deep tech,” he said. “For programs like Agility Prime that are going to be tackling a lot of really tough challenges — from power to flight safety to logistics — there’s a lot of really cutting-edge tech that has to be created, has to be matured and developed, if we’re ultimately going to bring this market to bear in the U.S. first. Well, STTR is a great place to start tackling the hard challenges now.”

STTR is a federal government program created to help commercialize compelling technology from across the U.S. research community. Like the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, it focuses on three phases — concept development, prototype development and commercialization — with various funding amounts available for different phases. Unlike SBIR, however, STTR requires that participating small businesses partner with an eligible nonprofit research institution.

According to Roper, the Air Force devotes around $700 million per year to SBIR and another $200 million to STTR projects — not all of which will yield results.

“We don’t expect every company in STTR to succeed, just like we don’t in SBIR,” he said. “This is an investment portfolio, so we’re looking for return across the whole portfolio, not [on] a company-by-company basis. But we should start planting the long-lead seeds now, because if we don’t, they’re not going to bloom in time for us to harvest in a way that will benefit programs like Agility Prime.”

Air Force Agility Prime STTR tech areas
Some of the technologies the Air Force will be surveying through the Agility Prime focus area of its next STTR Open Topic solicitation. AgilityPrime.com Screenshot

The Air Force’s next STTR Open Topic solicitation will include an Agility Prime focus area, intended to survey a large scope of technologies including autonomy, advanced aircraft materials and manufacturing, novel acoustics techniques, and sense-and-avoid systems, to name a few. The Air Force expects to award an estimated $10 million worth of phase one contracts for values up to $150,000 within 90 days. According to Jared Evans, a partner in AFVentures who also spoke during the webinar, phase two contracts are expected to have an initial value of $750,000, with the most promising projects then eligible for a “strategic fund increase” up to $30 million.

“Ultimately, our end goal here is . . . transitioning to a full program of record,” he explained. “There’s no STTR funding for that, but there’s also no limit on government input or private investment.”

In advance of the solicitation, the Air Force innovation division AFWERX will be hosting a virtual TeamUp event with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) on July 15 and 16. The first day of the event will be open to the public and will include an overview of STTR funding opportunities, plus a virtual trade show. The second day will be restricted to Agility Prime ecosystem members who have chosen to register for a virtual booth, with the aim of facilitating connections that could lead to collaborative STTR proposals. Registration for the event is available here.

“TeamUp events like this one will provide opportunities for multiple stakeholders to come together and compete with speed,” stated AFWERX director and Agility Prime team lead Col. Nathan Diller in a press release announcing the event. “Just like AFWERX and AFRL are teaming up to bring cutting-edge commercial technology together with world-class research, we are encouraging entrepreneurs and researchers from around the country to ‘TeamUp’ in a way that strengthens our national security and prosperity.”

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