By Laura Dempsey
Wright Brothers Institute
Space TACE Sprint Participants at WBI’s Springfield Street facility in January 2020. Dr..Kerianne Hobbs is second from the left.
The Air Force is all about moving toward systems that work independently – autonomously – thereby leaving the human factor available for other tasks.
In late 2019, the Air Force announced three Vanguard Programs, designed in response to the “Science and Technology: Strengthening USAF Science and Technology for 2030” report that emphasized development of transformational technologies. One Vanguard is called Skyborg, an unmanned, low-cost, attritable platform that makes optimal use of advancements in artificial intelligence. The plan is for an unmanned aircraft to be equipped with sensors and payloads and networked to manned fighter jets, becoming what Dr. Will Roper, top Air Force acquisition officer, termed an “AI wingman.”
An integral part of Skyborg is the TACE test – Testing Autonomy in a Complex Environment – a programming safety net that kicks in when an autonomous aircraft flies “out of bounds”, taking control and flying the aircraft back to a pre-defined safe zone.
This program spurred Dr. Kerianne Hobbs, a research aerospace engineer with the Air Force Research Laboratory, to think about other uses of this type of technology. A self-described space nerd, Dr. Hobbs wanted to evaluate whether the TACE system used for Skyborg could be adapted for spacecraft. She called it Space TACE.
Her first step was to pull together a team of like-minded researchers. She reached out to Wright Brothers Institute’s Bob Lee to leverage WBI’s expertise in running technology Sprints, intensive, weeklong efforts that focus on deconstructing a broad problem to find its most essential and impactful components. The combination of facilitation and an aggressive agenda enables concentration away from daily interference and distractions, allowing the team to rapidly determine a path forward.
Mr. Lee and Dr. Hobbs set about defining what the Sprint needed to accomplish; Hobbs put together a team that comprised researchers from AFRL’s Aerospace Systems and Space Vehicles directorate, Johns Hopkins University and Verus Research.
“We brought experts together for one week to investigate whether development of Space TACE would be feasible,” said Dr. Hobbs. “Not only did we find that it was possible, but that it could be exceptionally valuable.
“By the end of the week we developed an initial proof of concept. Within two weeks of the end of the Tech Sprint, we had enough information to write a three-page white paper proposal to apply for a $15M Seedlings for Disruptive Capabilities Program (SDCP) to continue to mature technology development toward a hypothetical spacecraft autonomy Vanguard program in the future,” she said.
Less than a month after the Tech Sprint, the proposal has been selected as one of three from the Aerospace Systems Directorate to complete at the AFRL level in March 2020. “In addition,” said Dr. Hobbs, we are in the process of identifying interns to continue the research this summer in preparation for a potential future program.”
Dr. Hobbs is now sold on WBI’s Sprint process.
“I was suspicious how spending eight hours a day in a meeting with the same people for a week would go, and it was better than I could have imagined,” Dr. Hobbs said. “We couldn’t have done it without WBI.”
“The questions they asked themselves were answered with enthusiasm,” said Mr. Lee. “Could their idea be done? Yes. Is it valuable? Yes. Then they set a path forward that included meeting with potential advocates and funding proposals.
“It was a very successful Sprint.”
The team left the Sprint with energy, enthusiasm and the confidence required to convince Air Force leadership to give them the green light. Their way-forward includes discussions with potential program advocates who will provide valuable feedback and support.
As Kerianne Hobbs and her team learned, the sky’s no longer the limit.