Pentagon wants to team with HBCUs on ‘tactical autonomy’ research

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The Department of Defense is looking for a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) to lead a new research center focused on “tactical autonomy” technology for military systems.

The initiative, unveiled Monday, is aimed at developing new military capabilities and addressing racial disparities in Pentagon R&D funding.

“The goals of the program are to advance the field of autonomy by focusing on [Department of the Air Force] operational imperatives, generate robust research and development efforts with HBCUs that are expected to build institutional research capacity to a very high research activity classification, grow and diversify the available pool of scientists and engineers to support the department and establish a source of organic technical excellence, and seed a unique science, research, and development ecosystem of small and large businesses, academia and the DoD,” according to an Air Force press release.

The focus on tactical autonomy comes as the U.S. military pursues new artificial intelligence technology and unmanned systems such as robotic wingmen to deliver “operationally relevant” capabilities.

“Part of the future of the military is going to be autonomy … and we need to be at the front edge of that. And this is an opportunity to tap into universities that have enormous amount of capability in science and technology,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon.

The initiative will focus on three main areas as it relates to autonomous systems: trust, collaboration between platforms, and human-machine teaming, Air Force Chief Scientist Victoria Coleman told reporters.

The Pentagon currently has 14 university affiliated research centers. Such centers are responsible for providing dedicated facilities and sharing space with Defense Department officials and industrial participants to conduct basic, applied and technology demonstration research. The new one will be the first to be led by an HBCU.

“Historically Black Colleges and Universities graduate 30% of Black Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics professionals in the United States, but receive less than .05% of Department of Defense research funding,” Coleman said in a press release. “This is clear evidence that untapped potential to address National Security imperatives resides at Historically Black Colleges and Universities but has been unavailable to the Department of Defense due to historical inequities.”

The Air Force plans to allocate $12 million per year for five years to fund the research, faculty and students involved in the new initiative. Undersecretary of Defense or Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu said her office and the Pentagon’s Acquisition and Sustainment office will both kick in an additional $2 million per year for the effort.

“The future of our national security is dependent on our ability to grow our STEM talent. We will only accomplish this through the cultivation of a highly diverse workforce,” Shyu told reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon. “We must tap into the HBCUs to grow a well-educated and well-trained workforce for the Department of Defense and this nation.”

Tawanda Rooney, deputy director of the Air Force concepts, development and management office and an HBCU graduate, said another aim is to help build the research capacity of HBCUs and increase their research activity rating to the highest level possible to put them in a better position to compete for other research opportunities.

“To do that, we have to give them that lift like we’ve done with other universities,” she told reporters.

HBCUs with a high-research activity rating in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education are eligible to compete for selection as the lead university. The selectee will be responsible for submitting a plan to create a consortium of other HBCUs to promote collaboration.

The DOD said interested HBCUs can go here for more information on how to nominate themselves. The deadline for nominations is Oct. 14.

Additionally, an industry day related to the initiative is slated for the week of Aug. 8-15, according to Coleman.

The Pentagon aims to pick the winner through a competitive process and have the new center up and running by the end of the year.

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Air Force, autonomy, Frank Kendall, HBCUs, Heidi Shyu, Tawanda Rooney
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