April 29, 2009      

Summary: The Robotics Technology Consortium (RTC) was created to improve the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) ground robotics technology acquisition process and investment planning. It acts as a facilitator for all of DoD’s joint ground robot ics research programs. The RTC is open to traditional defense contractors, robotics companies, universities and research institutions, as well as non-profit groups. Working through the RTC, non-governmental organizations and research institutions can participate directly in DoD ground robotics research planning. The consortium itself is actively working to engage with companies and organizations that have not worked for the U.S. Defense Department in the past. The RTC facilitates the formation of partnerships among non-traditional contractors and prime defense contractors for specific projects, with the possibility that those partnerships will segue into additional projects. The long-term prospects for defense robotics research funding are good. However, RTC membership is a must for those companies and research institutions that hope to tap into that funding.

There are many technology consortia and associations in the United States, but few can top the Robotics Technology Consortium (RTC) with regard to the level of influence with, or direct pipeline to the U.S. Dept. of Defense (DoD). While the RTC is well known among members of the military ground robotics community within the U.S., the group is fairly new. Therefore, non-U.S. military contractors and robotics companies and research institutions that are not directly involved in military work may not be aware of the consortia’s efforts. For U.S. commercial and academic entities looking to provide the DoD with unmanned ground robotics solutions, RTC membership is a de facto requirement.

What is the RTC?
The Robotics Technology Consortiumc is a non-profit, supporting organization of the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS), which also acts as an administrative agent for the RTC. It was formed at the request of the Joint Ground Robotics Enterprise (JGRE), an office within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, to accelerate the development and deployment of ground robotics technology for the DoD and other government organizations. The JGRE itself was formed in response to the 1990 National Defense Authorization Act to oversee robotic initiatives throughout the DoD, including an effort to consolidate the development of research and production of ground robotic systems to satisfy requirements being laid down by the DoD. The formation of a non-profit industry group that works directly with the DoD, is not without precedence.

The National Energetic and Warheads Consortium (NEWC) and National Small Arms Technology Consortium (NSATC), both of which have grown in membership and congressional funding since they were formed in 2000 and 2003, respectively, provide examples.

The RTC Charter
The RTC was formally launched in June, 2008 at the request of the Office of the Secretary of Defense in response to a growing gap between in the Department of Defense’s ground robotics requirements and the number delivered, service-worthy technologies. In previous years, the DoD found that most of its procurement staff and contractors had become almost fully involved in supplying the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving new robotics projects with scant attention. As a result, innovative research and development was slipping, and new capabilities were not moving smoothly through the procurement pipeline. At the highest level, the DoD expects to work with the RTC to improve the department’s robotic technology acquisition process. The Robotics Technology Consortium is designed specifically to simplify the concept submittal process, expand industry participation in DoD ground robotics research and development efforts particularly among non-traditional contractors (defined below), and to increase public sector input on the capabilities of new technologies and how they map to DoD requirements.

To do so, the RTC has taken a novel, multivariate approach that can be summed up as follows:

  • Single Source for Contracts
  • Joint Research Planning
  • Non-Traditional Contractors

Single source for Contracts
In May 2008, the Department of Defense entered into an Other Transaction Agreement (OTA) that calls for the RTC to coordinate early stage project funding for its specialty area. The initial OTA will run for a period of seven years, and have a spending ceiling of $175M. In addition, the DoD has stipulated that the RTC is the only consortium that it will enter into an OTA for robotics. With the Other Transaction Agreement, the DoD has essentially made the RTC the gatekeeper for both new and existing robotics research and development projects. The RTC will act as a facilitator for all of DoD’s joint robotics research programs. There are no alternative organizations for companies or universities wishing to provide input on ground robotics research and technology being developed for the U.S. military.

Joint Research Planning

The developers of the Robotics Technology Consortium understand that the vast majority of leading robotics subject matter experts (SMEs) do not work directly for the government. Also, the robotics experts found in public companies and research institutions can provide the Department of Defense with a much broader and deeper understanding of robotics technologies emerging from the private sector than their governmental counterparts. The RTC, therefore, allows for non-government organizations to participate directly in DoD research planning. This takes place under the auspices of the JGRE Technology Advisory Board, the group that determines the importance and readiness level of robotics technology concepts submitted for possible funding. As the main source for feedback on military robotics projects, the JGRE, and hence the DoD, gives RTC industry and academic members a direct voice in setting the DoD’s robotics research agenda. RTC members work with their JGRE government associates on Technology Advisory Board initiatives based on the DoD’s Integrated Unmanned Systems Roadmap, the department’s vision for unmanned systems and related technology (including unmanned ground, air and water-based systems). Now in its second edition, the current Unmanned Systems Roadmap covers the years 2009-2034.

The RTC/DoD partnership begins at the earliest stages of project concept development. RTC members submit ideas to the DoD through the Technology Advisory Board. The industry/government panel then develops research priorities, which are turned into ‘Requests for Project Proposals’ (RPPs) for the government. The RPPs are published on the Federal Business Opportunities site (www.fbo.gov), but submissions must be made through the RTC. In other words, to play in the ground military robotics research proposal game, you must be a RTC member. The Other Transaction Agreement requires the Robotics Technology Consortium to provide the DoD with rapid turnaround on proposals for all projects spawned under the contract, and give the government access to the ideas emanating from a wide range of RTC technology developers without the tangle of administrivia that is typically associated with defense procurement. The result is that RPP turnarounds are very fast. According to Helen Greiner, current president of the RTC, bids on the RPPs are usually occurs within three days, and the programs are under contract within a month after the bids are submitted.

Non-Traditional Contractors
In addition to traditional defense contractors, the RTC actively solicits and engages companies and organizations that historically have not performed work for the Defense Department and other government organizations. (Only U.S. firms are allowed to be members of the RTC.) These target ‘Non-Traditional Defense Contractors’ are those companies that for a period of one year have not entered into or performed any contract covered by Federal Procurement Policy Act accounting standards or have a government procurement contract of more than $500,000 for a federal agency. Because of the way the Other Transaction Agreement with DoD is designed, the Robotics Technology Consortium is able to bring companies into the fold that have had little experience conducting business with the DoD. The RTC will also facilitate the formation of partnerships between non-traditional contractors and prime defense contractors such as such as Boeing, Raytheon and BAE. It is assumed that these partnerships will carry over into other military and non-military government projects.

The RTC Membership
Robotic Technology Consortium currently boasts of a diverse membership of 120, including primary defense contractors, non-profit groups, robotics companies and universities, of which approximately 70 percent are ‘non-traditional contractors.’ Defense sector members include industry giants such as Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems, as well as smaller robotics technology firms such as Barrett Technology, Black-I Robotics, Kairos Autonomi, Velodyne Lidar and many others. Academia is well represented in the RTC, including large institutions such as Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Michigan and Pennsylvania State University, as well as smaller universities including Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech).

Judging Success
As noted earlier, the DoD supported the formation of the Robotics Technology Consortium to improve the department’s robotic technology acquisition process, including better investment planning. Therefore, the ability to satisfy the DoD’s robotics capability needs more quickly than in the past is the final arbiter of the RTC success. Still, the DoD has additional metrics to gauge the success of the consortium, and, if necessary, to modify processes to deliver optimal results. One measure of RTC’s performance is the amount of participation by non-traditional defense contractors (NDCs in the government’s parlance) to deliver solutions that would not be possible without their contribution or would be limited to suboptimal results. The RTC has mandated that these non-traditional contractors should also be responsible for a significant amount of program effort. Cost reduction and schedule adherence (or reduction) are other gauges of success. The Department of Defense has also made it clear that it requires the consortium to involve a wide array of robotics players in the form of large defense contractors, academic research institutions, non-profits and robotics technology providers. The DoD expects that the RTC’s private sector ‘open arms’ policy will result is an increased awareness and deeper knowledge of available ground robotics technologies.

DoD Robotics Research Budgets
While it makes up only a small portion of the DoD’s overall Defense Research, Development, Testing and Evaluation (RDT&E) budget, the robotics research funding is significant in size. The overall joint robotics RDT&E budget for fiscal year 2009 is just over $26 million. The FY 2009 joint robotics RDT&E budget of $26M significantly understates the DoD’s total robotics research budget, much of which is hidden in specific procurement programs, or classified in projects at Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) or other military development labs. Still, the $26M figure is a considerable decline from 2008, when the DoD pushed almost double that amount $50.1 million into joint robotics R&D. The 2008 surge in funding was a reflection of the DoD’s efforts to kick start more programs, including those funded under the contract with RTC. The Joint Robotics Program got its first funding in 2007, with an initial annual outlay of $41.5 million, as robotic systems already in the field demonstrated the potential of robotic systems to DoD leadership. The most cohesive element of the 2009 joint robotics RDT&E budget, which accounts for the bulk of the $26 million, is funding that comes through the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Joint Robotics Program, run through the Joint Ground Robotics Enterprise and the Army’s Picatinny Arsenal. This bodes well for the Robotics Technology Consortium members, as the RTC is specifically designed to act as a liaison between the JGRE and industry.

Robotics Expected to Fare Well
While this 2009 budget is down over the 2008 figures, and the FY 2010 budget is expected to hold spending steady, following the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review, the Defense Department is expected to recast its priorities for spending based on a new strategic vision for defense. A key element of that vision is investment in new technology including robotics. As a result, the long-term prospects for defense robotics research funding are good. The best way to tap into that funding — in some cases, the only way is through the Robotics Technology Consortium.

—Sean Gallagher & Dan Kara