As the number of unmanned systems in use in the air, on land and in the oceans continues to rise, recent action by the Small Business Administration will work to accommodate the potential for small businesses to control parts of that market.
In a Sept. 30 release, the SBA announced the awarding of four new regional innovation cluster contracts. One of the new clusters in southeastern New Mexico is dedicated solely to the research and development of unmanned and autonomous systems.
According to data obtained from the SBA by FedScoop, the cluster in New Mexico — operated and run through Emerging Technology Ventures Inc. — received a more than $547 million contract award for the base year.
The hub of the cluster, located in Otero County, will host an 85,000-square-foot facility that is currently in the process of being purchased. Once the purchase is completed and developed, companies can choose to locate there and use SBA’s facility to help launch their small business initiatives in the field.
According to the release, the SBA funding will help the cluster’s organizing entity strengthen opportunities for small businesses within the cluster by providing mentoring, counseling and programming to assist them in showcasing and pitching both the public and private sectors on the technology they develop.
Cliff Hudson, the project manager for the New Mexico cluster through ETV Inc., said the cluster will be a central location to develop technologies small businesses can then market to local defense installations, like White Sands Missile Range in Chaves County and Otero County’s Holloman Air Force Base, the U.S. Air Force’s training command for unmanned aerial vehicle pilots.
“Defense is still a major customer for unmanned systems,” Hudson told FedScoop. “We also see emerging potential in other markets as well. Precision agriculture, looking at the projections, is really going to blossom into a significant market for unmanned systems in the future. Given the agricultural focus that’s also present in this area, we think it’s again a lot of synergy with a lot of the technologies that are emerging.”
The cluster won’t focus on any one type of unmanned system, Hudson said. In fact, research and development will likely occur for aerial, maritime and land-based unmanned systems.
On land, unmanned systems and cluster-developed technologies can be used to work with hazardous material, oil and gas exploration and extraction, and forest management.
In the air, the cluster will work with the Federal Aviation Administration on UAS integration through the data collected at its test sites and through New Mexico State University’s certificate of authorization, which allows it to test drones out of Las Cruces International Airport.
“We think there’s a great partnership there, especially with the long-term experience that they have,” Hudson said. “We certainly see this as a collaboration with the FAA-approved test sites as well. We’ve had a dialogue with, I believe, all of them, excluding the northeast. We certainly see a lot of opportunity there.”
But collaborations with federal agencies are not the only areas of collaboration the new cluster can foster, Hudson said. Through collaboration with the defense-centered clusters in San Diego and Huntsville, Alabama, the New Mexico cluster can leverage already-existing relationships and “natural synergy” that existed even before its creation.
“We can see us expanding that relationship,” Hudson said. “I truly envision a day of a national collaboration in the innovation network. I really see the clusters as a cornerstone regionally as the building blocks for that national vision.”
Since the establishment of the cluster program in 2009, SBA has invested in more than 40 clusters nationwide. Hudson’s cluster is the first established in New Mexico.
“I’ve believed in this program for a long time, and I’m glad to see the SBA continue to invest in it,” Hudson said. “I think it’s having a significant impact on the small business community.”
Maria Contreras-Sweet, who came on board as SBA’s administrator in April, said in the release that SBA’s strategic infrastructure of financing and consulting networks in these regions will help new companies launch and grow.
“We’re unleashing the full potential of entrepreneurs who are developing cutting-edge products and processes that will help ensure American global competitiveness, creating support systems for small businesses in regions with the most need,” Contreras-Sweet said.