While the U.S. Air Force awarded Concord, Calif.-based drone maker, Volansi a contract last December to participate in the service’s prototype effort for the Skyborg low-cost attritable demonstrator–a project worth up to $400 million, company CEO Hannan Parvizian and former Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper, a new member of Volansi’s board, said that Roper’s expertise will benefit the company in forming a strategy on which military missions to pursue and delivering approved military drone technologies to the civilian world, not in opening doors to the military market.
Roper retired as the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition on Jan. 20, according to an Office of Government Ethics (OGE) Form 201 filing.
According to 18 U.S.C. §207 (a)(1), former federal employees are subject to a “lifetime ban” on meeting with federal officials “in a particular matter involving a specific party in which the employee participated personally and substantially as an employee, and in which the United States is a party or has a direct and substantial interest.”
If an Air Force contract under Roper’s purview was pending in the last year before he left office, he is barred for two years from communicating with the federal government or appearing before the federal government in connection with that contract, and there is a one-year ban on him meeting with the Air Force on behalf of Volansi.
“It’s a pretty long set of restrictions they give you, but the things that are most relevant is you can’t be an advocate back to the government–pick up the phone and try to use it to open doors that you had access to when you were still sitting in the government seat, and you can understand why those provisions exist,” Roper said in a virtual interview with Parvizian on March 3.
“But I shared this with Hannan and the Volansi team early on, even if I were allowed to do that, if that’s what they were looking for me to do, that’s really not the position I want to be in either,” he said. “I want to be helping companies on their strategy, helping them on their operations, getting government opportunities, turning those into commercial ones and vice versa, and having those ideas compete on a level playing field with all other companies where the best ideas are the ones that make it to the goal line. The cooling off restrictions I have don’t really impact what I wanted to do or what Volansi was interested in having me do, which is to bring in thinking about government market value proposition in the global market context and where understanding and working in it could provide a delineated advantage to them.”
The Air Force launched Skyborg last May in an effort to field an artificial intelligence (AI)-driven system to be a “quarterback in the sky” for manned aircraft. Skyborg is one of the service’s three “Vanguard” programs, which are the service’s top science and technology priorities and are meant to demonstrate the rapid viability of emerging technology (Defense Daily, Nov. 21, 2019).
Volansi announced Roper was to join its board on March 3. The press release carried a sub-headline reading, “Former Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Air Force brings deep expertise in unlocking defense spending in R&D and emerging technologies to venture-backed companies.”
Walter Shaub, a former director of OGE and a senior ethics fellow at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), said that the announcement’s wording raises questions.
“The word ‘unlocking’ made me think, ‘Yikes,’ because it creates the impression that he [Roper] is going to leverage his insider knowledge to help them have a competitive advantage,” Shaub said. “That’s the specific reason Congress passed the  Procurement Integrity Act because of very specific concerns about procurement officials offering an unfair advantage that could distort market competition. The spirit of the law is intended to keep everything above board. The press announcement jumped out as something that suggests they’re touting, ‘Oh, look. We have a competitive advantage now.’ That’s concerning.”
In response to a question about the wording of the sub-headline, Volansi said in an email that “having Dr. Roper on Volansi’s Board does not give the company any inherent advantage in receiving a government contract.”
“Dr. Roper cannot engage the government on Volansi’s behalf,” the company said. “However, he brings over a decade of expertise applying new technologies – especially commercial ones – to the military’s toughest challenges. This will significantly help Volansi prioritize which military missions to pursue and how these missions might accelerate commercial opportunities. He additionally uniquely understands challenges commercial companies face in navigating government procurement, which will help our Board smartly navigate commercial and defense markets.”
Included in the Volansi portfolio are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), such as the Voly C20 and Voly M20 class 3 UAVs. The Voly C20 is able to port 20 pounds of cargo or conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions, while the Voly M20 is able to carry 20 pounds of payload and 10 pounds of sensors, the company said.
Overall, Volansi plans a spectrum of drones from 10 to 200 pounds and a range of 50 to 500 miles, Parvizian said. Volansi serves commercial and government operators in tactical aerial resupply, medical deliveries, and disaster relief. Parvizian and fellow engineer, Wesley Zheng, co-founded the company in 2015 in response to inventory and supply chain problems at Tesla, where Parvizian once worked.
While DoD has historically spurred technology advances in areas, such as computers and rockets, “in the case of small, consumer drones, the West fell behind quite a lot, and one big reason for that is we didn’t have the supply chain for electronics in the U.S. as much as you see it in China,” Parvizian said.
“There are so many semi-conductor and electronics manufacturers there that you could readily build a hardware platform,” he said of China. “What Dr. Roper pushed that I found very beneficial when he was in office was this focus and attention to investment in this space that allowed us and many of the suppliers to feel like they could invest in the supply chain. Building a drone or a VTOL platorm requires a lot of carbon, engines, motors, avionics, and it’s very hard to find that supply chain readily in the U.S. What we did was try to become very vertically integrated and develop a lot of that stuff in-house or fund our suppliers or give them purchase orders to give them confidence that they could build at scale or build a certain technology that we could then integrate into our platforms.”
Volansi learned about the Skyborg program last year and Volansi believes its drones could provide logistics support, communications relay support or other manned-unmanned teaming support in the Skyborg effort.
As Air Force acquisition chief, Roper advocated acquisition process and innovation disruptions to field advanced technologies quickly and lure non-traditional companies into doing business with the Pentagon. He backed the Air Force’s AFWERX innovation arm, Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) efforts, and Agility Prime, an AFWERX project for electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft.
“In the case of VTOL, it’s very clear that the different regulations and safety and airworthiness processes that the military brings to the table can be a huge value to getting relief from civilian regulation where VTOL platforms have never been certified before,” Roper said March 3. “The military is very good at certifying exotic systems that fly through the air. It’s very comfortable doing that, dealing with new and novel things, and getting to ‘it’s safe to fly.’ That is the value proposition that I see the military bringing. We want to find as many military missions that are very close to a commercial analogue, show we can do those safely, have military organizations certify vehicles and operations and logistics processes as being safe, and then use that safety track record to convince domestic regulators around the world that it’s safe to have drones do more and more missions in civilian airspace.”
“I think that strategy that Volansi has started out makes a lot of sense,” Roper said. “It was one I actively encouraged when I was in the Air Force, and now I’m going to get to help on the other side of it. And I’ll learn a lot myself, seeing what companies are dealing with in the day-to-day of engaging their military customers versus their commercial ones.”
Since 2018, Volansi has been working with DoD. The company’s inaugural Pentagon program was using Volansi C20 drones to deliver medical supplies from ship to ship and ship to shore for the U.S. Navy, Parvizian said, and the company is now working with the Defense Logistics Agency, the Navy, the U.S. Air Force, and other DoD agencies.
Drone applications in which military missions could end up crossing over to commercial customers include disaster relief, pilot rescue, medical equipment delivery, flying food, munitions and batteries to military forces in combat zones to avoid supply via ground routes endangered by Improvised Explosive Devices, delivering tools and equipment across large air bases, ship to shore delivery for the Navy and U.S. Marine Corps, and resupply for soldiers on the ground.
Volansi’s drones will lower the cost of delivery and increase responsiveness–the difference between “life saving and life losing missions,” Roper said.
“Logistics, historically, have been the make or break for militaries in the most pressing engagements and conflict,” he said. “Anything that brings transformative logistics is something militaries should take notice of…The sky really is the limit [for shared commercial/military missions]. I expect several years from now people will look back and say, ‘Wow. These missions we now do in three dimensions, where in the past we had to do them in two dimensions, and it was slow and costly.'”
Roper said that Volansi “has positioned themselves to be one of the poster children for this new technology model that works between dotcom and dotmil markets.”