Unmanned boats that can be air-dropped from a helicopter and a handheld system able to construct a virtual 3D model of vehicles damaged by roadside bombs were among the technologies showcased this morning at the Navy Opportunity Forum in Arlington, Va.

Many of the small businesses attended the conference in search of new Navy customers or prime contractors to partner with for development and integration of their products. These companies are working on technologies unlike anything available on the market, executives said, but need financial help to transfer them to sailors and Marines.

The Office of Naval Research alone has roughly a thousand projects in need of small business participation, Rear Adm. Mat Winter, chief of naval research, said in a keynote speech. “We need your help, your continuous help, throughout the lifecycle of our warfighting capability systems.”

Many of those opportunities lie in the field of applied research, where companies can pioneer algorithms, software and materials that are later used in a program of record, he told Defense Daily afterward. An example is the capacitor used for the Navy’s electromagnetic railgun. Small businesses were vital in providing technologies that allow the capacitor to store massive amounts of energy in a relatively small form factor. 

The electromagnetic railgun on display at the Naval Future Forces Science and Technology Expo. Photo: Defense Daily.
The electromagnetic railgun on display at the Naval Future Forces Science and Technology Expo. Photo: Defense Daily.

Robotics—including unmanned underwater, surface and ground vehicles—were among the technologies showcased by vendors during the first day of the conference.

Arizona’s Hydronalix, Inc. specializes in a small, high speed unmanned surface vehicles (USV). The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has purchased 10 boats from the company to help track hurricanes, but the Hydronalix wants to expand its customer base to include the military, said Anthony Mulligan, the company’s CEO and president.

The company is developing a USV that could be dropped from a helicopter or P-3 aircraft to help support maritime surveillance missions or assist special operators. Another possible application is equipping the boats with a high bandwidth satellite link and using them as a communications relay, which would allow small unmanned aerial systems to operate beyond the line of sight, he said.

“We’re looking for a systems integrator,” to adapt the platform for military aircraft, he said. “We’re looking for government sponsors to partner with for payload systems, we’re looking for a prime contractor to team with.”

So far, Hydronalix has dropped its USV from a helicopter hovering at 70 feet heights, but its goal is for the boat to survive a 30,000 foot drop, Mulligan said. The boat can dash at 15 knots and switch between gas and electric propulsion, with a 32-hour endurance with a gas engine and an extra nine hours from electric power.

Other unmanned platforms focused on land-based applications. Stratom, Inc.—a Boulder, Colo.-based robotics business—showcased its Expeditionary Robo-Pallet under development for the Marine Corps, an unmanned ground vehicle meant to speed up the process of moving equipment on and off an aircraft.

The Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Force 21 strategy centers around seabasing, which will require the service to frequently replenish supplies by flying from the shore to Navy ships deployed along the coast, said Mark Gordon, Stratom’s president and CEO. Currently, Marines must load and offload equipment and ammunition manually.

“If we can reduce that, say by 10 minutes, we have a significant reduction in not only the cycle time of what it takes to get the aircraft off the ground, we also have a fairly substantial reduction in the cost associated with the fuel of keeping that aircraft running during that time period,” he said.

That’s where the Robo-Pallet comes in. The system can be transported inside a V-22 Osprey or CH-53E Sea Stallion, Gordon said. Once the aircraft has landed, the Robo-Pallet can autonomously move up and down the ramp into the aircraft, self-load a pallet onto the platform and then transport equipment to a designated  waypoint at speeds of 2.2 meters a second. It is built to carry 5,000 pounds and roll over six-inch obstacles, but the company is still validating whether it can meet those objectives.

The Robo-Pallet’s current contract wraps up this summer, before the prototype is ready for demonstrations in an operational environment, Gordon said. The company has applied for a Rapid Innovation Fund contract to continue development of the system so that it can be ready for fielding in 2018. If it wins that award, the company hopes to demonstrate the Robo-Pallet’s offload capability with V-22s at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz.  

Another technology displayed during the conference is aimed at increasing the accuracy of inspections after a vehicle is damaged by an improvised explosive device. Currently, troops conduct visual inspections with a flashlight and a ruler, said Mark Butkiewicz of Survice Engineering Co., a Belcamp, Md.-based technology company.

“If they [inspectors] are conservative in their estimate, that means they might scrap an asset that could otherwise be fielded,” he said. “If they’re on the other side of that coin, they might say, ‘Hey, this is good to go,’ when it’s really got damage that could put other soldiers at risk through a subsequent IED event.”

The company’s Hawkeye handheld imaging device uses 2D images to produce a virtual 3D reconstruction of the vehicle that measures deformities at accuracies within 2 millimeters. Survice is working with the Marine Corps to develop the system to for mine resistant vehicles, but Butkiewicz noted it could also be applicable to ascertain damage done to aircraft and surface ships.

If the company is able to get Hawkeye to market, it will be one of the cheapest 3D imagers on the market. Comparable devices cost upward of $50,000, but Survice is aiming for a $2,000 price point, he said.

In collaboration with the Army Research Laboratory, Survice plans to test the system on vehicles before and after live fire events at the Army’s Aberdeen Test Center in Maryland. However, the company will need additional government funding to further develop the device for a normal operational environment and has sought out another Small Business Innovation Research award for that purpose, Butkiewicz said.