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A Shark Tank-style showcase for new drone technologies

Engineering graduate student Mithun Diddi flies a drone in the Unmanned Aircraft Systems facility at the George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security in Burlington, Massachusetts on March 8, 2019 Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

The U.S. Air Force is looking for companies with ideas for drone technologies, and doing it with a competition to be held at Northeastern’s state-of-the-art research drone-testing facility on July 24. 

The Pitch Day contest at the Kostas Research Institute marks the first of a dozen Air Force competitions slated for this year, and the second such competition it has ever held. The purpose of these events is to help the Air Force find companies that can help the military solve national security challenges in areas such as space, hypersonics, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems. 

For the July 24 competition, the Air Force is soliciting companies that are developing all types of drone technologies. These technologies include payloads that can defeat other drones, payloads to sense weather hazards to help unmanned aircraft navigate safely, and systems that can counter large groups of drones that pose a security threat.

The decision to hold an event focused on drone technology at Northeastern’s Innovation Campus in Burlington, Massachusetts, was a natural one, says Peter Boynton, the chief executive officer of the Kostas Research Institute and a professor of the practice at Northeastern.

“Because the Air Force is now doing so much work collaborating with our researchers at KRI, I think the opportunity to host this Pitch Day became evident,” says Boynton. “It just made sense to use this facility with our new and really unique research facilities here—and because this is a place where they’re already working.” 

The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center has provided $2.8 million to fund research through its unit at Hanscom Air Force Base, which is a short drive from Northeastern’s Innovation Campus. The collaborative partnership between Hanscom and Northeastern enables the Air Force to adapt to the rapidly changing commercial market for autonomous and unmanned aircraft systems, known as UAS.

“The fact that the Air Force is holding Pitch Day here is really a validation of George Kostas’s vision to bring together professors, companies, and mission-focused agencies to rapidly innovate,” Boynton says, referring to the late 1943 Northeastern graduate whose lifelong investments were integral to the advancement of the university’s research in nanotechnology and homeland security.

The July 24 event will be divided into three parts. During the morning session, 13 companies will present their proposals in 15-minute sessions before a panel of judges comprised of Air Force personnel. The presenters with the best ideas will be immediately granted funding for the first phase of their projects.

“When a company wins their pitch, the Air Force brings them into an adjacent conference room and they swipe a credit card and give them their funding right in that moment,” says Boynton. This fast-track approach, he says, will enable entrepreneurs to quickly build and test prototypes for new technologies. 

“We have not seen other government agencies able to be so nimble and so quick in funding entrepreneurial talent as the Air Force is now doing,” he says. “Instead of six months, they have gotten it down to six minutes.”

During the second part of the program—open to the press—the results of the competition will be announced and a handful of the winning companies will be invited to showcase their technologies. Drone demonstrations will be held in the facility’s anechoic chamber and Faraday cage, and will be followed by a networking event with national security organizations, the aeronautics division of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, and other agencies.

The Air Force’s inaugural Pitch Day was held in March in New York City, where out of more than 400 submissions, the Air Force invited 59 businesses to pitch their proposals, awarding 51 with contracts totaling $8.75 million.

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu.

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