Pittsburgh’s Gecko Robotics said on Nov. 29 that the U.S. Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center has awarded the company an 18-month, $1.5 million Phase 2 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract to aid the Air Force in the planned conversion of 450 Minuteman III silos to accommodate the Northrop Grumman [NOC] LGM-35A Sentinel next generation ICBM.

“Under the new contract, Gecko Robotics will integrate state-of-the-art concrete evaluation technology into their fleet of crawling robots,” the company said. “The hardware and software components together will provide the capability to rapidly assess concrete and steel liners in ICBM launch facilities. The ability to rapidly assess the current infrastructure of launch facilities is paramount to ensure a smooth transition to the Sentinel program and transition to a modernized sustainment program.”

In June, the Air Force Nuclear Weapons center at Hill AFB, Utah awarded BAE Systems an up to $12 billion contract for ICBM support through 2040 (Defense Daily, June 24).

Under the cost-plus-award-fee contract for the Integration Support Contract (ISC) 2.0, BAE will serve as the lead systems integrator and will complement government personnel in providing ICBM systems engineering, integration, and professional services.

BAE was the incumbent and won the approximately $534 million ISC contract in July 2013.

For ISC 2.0, BAE beat out four other offers, which included one from Integrated ICBM Support Services, LLCa joint venture formed last year among AmentumApex Systems and Leidos [LDOS] (Defense Daily, Feb. 10, 2021).

The ISC 2.0 contract will support the aging Minuteman III ICBM force and the Sentinel, which may become operational in 2029 and remain so until 2075.

“During the transition [to Sentinel], they want to do a whole construction risk assessment on the underlying infrastructure, all the things that have existed since the Cold War,” Ed Bryner, director of forward deployed engineering for Gecko Robotics’ government solutions business, said in a telephone interview. “There’s been data collected thus far, but most of it has been visual assessment, maybe some UT [ultrasonic testing] scanning on the steel liner, but what Gecko’s building is a technology, not just to do the visual inspection and the steel liner inspection, but include data about the concrete substructure that sits behind that steel liner.”

“So we’re building a sensor suite and integrating that data into our predictive analytics software platform and providing that capability to help with some finite element analyses and higher order analyses that need to happen on that underlying infrastructure in order to make sure that this [Sentinel] program is going to run at cost, on time for the next several decades,” he said. “That data really doesn’t exist today. Gecko specializes in building out those new data layers and ultimately creating software that allows customers to leverage that data layer.”

“The start is obviously the transition program where we’re going to be doing this risk assessment, but then from there on in the Sentinel program has the ability to build on top of that data layer–continue to take data during their programmed depot maintenance with this hardware and software and continue to become a little bit more proactive or predictive in their maintenance cycles, rather than reactive, which is really how the Minuteman III systems have had to run thus far,” Bryner said.

Northrop Grumman and Bechtel, which is to build the required LGM-35A infrastructure required for the 450 silos, may use such predictive data to keep the Sentinel program on track.

An Air Force competition for the data layer for the 450 Sentinel silos may kick off next September.

“At the time of the [Sentinel] transition, Bechtel, Northrop Grumman and the Sentinel program office are going to be evaluating all the types of technology that can do this,” Bryner said. “Largely those are manual. They collect a couple thousand data points. We’re going to provide them millions of data points inside of an interactive software platform that will ultimately allow them to make better decisions.”

While other companies are likely to vie for the data layer contract with Gecko Robotics, Bryner said that “the largest competition is being stuck in our ways and doing this the way that we’ve always done it–collecting that data via handheld, doing it as cheap as possible, putting people in scaffolding, ‘sky climbers,’ etc.”

“As we look at our critical infrastructure across America and, really, the world, these things are deteriorating and moving toward the end of their life,” he said. “We want to improve the world, our infrastructure, and the things we rely on every day, and the only way to do that is to be better informed.”

In August last year, the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center said that it had contracted with the Virginia-based Sabel Systems to create a “Teamcenter” hub to consolidate and organize data, enable enterprise-wide workflows, and “visualize” the health of the Minuteman III fleet, as the Air Force begins the transition to Sentinel.