AFWERX plans new ‘proving ground’ to accelerate autonomy tech

Lift Aircraft’s Hexa aircraft from AFWERX Agility Prime project demonstrates its abilities to U.S. Air Force Airmen and Civilian Contractors during Emerald Warrior 22.1 at Hurlburt Field, Florida, May 3, 2022 (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Taylor Crul)

The Air Force’s innovation-pushing AFWERX office is planning to launch a new program and rapid testing facility to spur the military’s adoption of autonomy technologies through unique public-private collaboration. 

Building on the original concept of its two-and-a-half-year-old Agility Prime program, AFWERX is shaping Autonomy Prime to accelerate service members’ transition and fielding processes for emerging autonomous assets — which enable machines to complete tasks with minimal to no human interactions — via a new proving ground where companies and government teams can demonstrate and improve that technology.

“We want to create a robust and agile process to access, test, iterate and mature autonomy technologies for the Department of the Air Force — with industry — to all of our programs of record and capabilities. That really is our ultimate vision,” AFWERX Prime Division Chief Lt. Col. Tom Meagher told DefenseScoop in a recent interview.

Demand Signals

Before he was tapped to steer this innovation hub’s prime portfolios, Meagher flew for the Air Force as a B-52 bomber pilot and as a test pilot for multiple platforms. 

“We were not doing specific [artificial intelligence] or autonomy stuff on [the B-52] at the time by any means,” he noted. Now though, Meagher said that system is being modernized, and the Air Force broadly recognizes “that there’s a huge criticality for autonomy capabilities in the future of how we operate.”

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall’s guiding operational imperatives reference driving the use of more affordable uncrewed autonomous combat aircraft, as well as increased autonomy and teaming between platforms. 

“That’s part of the premise of why we’re doing what we’re doing,” Meagher told DefenseScoop.

Autonomy Prime also marks the latest project in the AFWERX prime division. The Orbital Prime program focused on active space debris remediation (or solving the space junk problem) and was unveiled earlier this year. The first prime program — Agility Prime — launched in April 2020 to pave the way for a new class of all-electric, vertical lift air mobility systems. 

“When we looked at Agility Prime, it was a coalescence of three kinds of technologies” including distributed electric propulsion systems, advanced autonomy and increased automation, and advanced manufacturing at scale, Meagher said. Through that work, he noted that AFWERX “received demand signals from the commercial side” demonstrating a huge push to further advance autonomy-aligned aviation capabilities. 

“It was baked in as advanced air mobility in what we were doing with the Agility Prime, so it’s a logical progression and there’s a lot of interest on all sides,” he added.

A ‘purpose-built’ proving ground

In September, AFWERX published a request for information “to assist in preparations for [the] planned launch of Autonomy Prime.” Officials wrote in the document that they deeply explored the implications of automation as their first prime program unfolded. 

They realized in that work that “technological dominance in autonomy and associated sub-technologies will be critical to the future success” of the Air Force and America more broadly; that the branch’s acquisition and test enterprise “is and will continue to face challenges regarding the resources, expertise, and experience developing and fielding autonomous capabilities” to match pacing demands; and that “an enormous quantity of valuable existing autonomy technologies as well as expertise and resources to develop additional technologies” exist outside of the Pentagon’s traditional industrial base, according to the RFI.

Through Autonomy Prime, the tech accelerator will produce a “purpose-built autonomy testing and development facility” — deemed the “AFWERX proving ground” — for industry partners to demonstrate and develop their solutions, or possibly feed them directly to larger military programs of record.

Elements of interest for expedited transition include detection algorithms, automated target recognition tools, command and control technologies, mesh networks, human-machine translation algorithms, and more.

Simulation technologies as well as drones and associated capabilities that can operate in an open architecture “at the proving ground for the purpose of executing high-tempo autonomy testing and demonstration,” are the assets of interest for experimentation support, according to the RFI.

The RFI submission deadline passed on Monday. 

There is “a lot of the autonomy work that we’ve seen on the flight side,” as well as “a lot of modeling simulations that have been done in some of our [Defense Department] programs,” Meagher told DefenseScoop.

By building out a modular drone testbed, AFWERX envisions providing a strong mechanism “to continue to develop out these algorithms and capabilities. Whether it’s sensing, or communications, or vehicle behaviors, we feel like that’s a good niche where we can start to make an impact there,” he added. “And also, we’ll provide really an environment for industry and partners to come in and put their [algorithms and] things on those aircraft to go test them out. Because, at the end of the day, we want to have a really good and iterative transition pipeline for those technologies.”

Demystifying autonomy

“This is not a ‘futures’ thing. It’s something we’re looking to get started. The DOD wants [more autonomy] right now, the commercial industry wants it right now and we have the mechanism in place and the demand signal on both sides, so we are ready to go,” Meagher told DefenseScoop.

In an email shortly before submissions closed, Meagher said that he and his team are “excited with the interest shown by industry” — though he could not go into specifics on responses to the RFI at that time.

Next up, he said AFWERX will review the feedback and match up industry overlap with other DOD autonomy program needs. From there, officials will also “identify the near-term focus for upcoming solicitation and Other Transaction Authority (OTA) opportunities,” Meagher added.

In his view, Air Force officials are observing more and more how “the role of increased autonomy to scale up the number of assets and capabilities is incredibly important” as the conflict landscape evolves. So, this Autonomy Prime work is timely.

“I think it’s also really important to demystify autonomy and demystify AI as well, because it scares some people. But it’s really important that the DOD is approaching it certainly from an ethical perspective of how we utilize autonomy, what the role of the human is, and how they interact with the capabilities. I mean, that’s certainly a piece that we’ll be looking into and the rest of the department is looking into,” Meagher said. “And that’s really important for the public to understand.”

He added: “How we ethically execute our mission in times of war is incredibly important for how the United States fights and how we operate as a country. And that’s very important to continue as we start to increasingly build up more autonomous capabilities for our fight.”