The US Army needs smaller drones and heavier-crewed aircraft for its resupply missions. The problem is that this puts aircrews more at risk when they’re entering hostile regions. That’s where Near Earth Autonomy comes in.
The Homewood-based autonomous technology company developed a platform that can be integrated into drones or other air vehicles. Now, the Army thinks its technology can be of use — so much so that it awarded the company a contract for an amount that Near Earth Autonomy declined to disclose. The contract will help the company demonstrate a resupply uncrewed aerial system that can move 800-pound loads for flying distances over 100 miles. Near Earth Autonomy is joined by the Connecticut-based Kaman Air Vehicles, with whom the company secured a $10 million equity investment in June 2022.
According to an announcement made Wednesday afternoon, the goal is to create a heavy-lift vertical takeoff and landing that can take soldiers out of harm’s way, as well as supplement resupply trips that don’t require the physical presence of a crew. Near Earth Autonomy will be the prime contractor and is ultimately responsible for the autonomy system, which the announcement said the Army wants to assure its troops while redirecting their focus to their mission.
The missions the uncrewed aerial system is designed to assist will include surveillance, intelligence, reconnaissance, electronic warfare, search and rescue, and communications relay.
Still, this won’t be Near Earth Autonomy’s first experience working with the military: In 2021, the company landed a partnership with defense tech contractor L3Harris Technologies to deploy autonomous drone systems for medical response in battle. At the time, Near Earth Autonomy CEO Sanjiv Singh told Technical.ly that an upside of working with the government was that there tended to be more security.
“The Defense Department is a good partner at the front end [of technology development] because they are more tolerant to risk,” Singh said. “No one’s going to go bankrupt if a project doesn’t work out.”
This latest contract comes on the heels of an eventful year for Near Earth Autonomy. The company landed one of the biggest deals in Q2 of 2022 thanks to Kaman Air Vehicles’ equity investment. Additionally, the company was recognized in the Pittsburgh Technology Council’s Tech 50 awards as a standout in autonomy and robotics within the city. Moving forward, Singh says he anticipates that the project will broaden its scope beyond its usual area of focus.
“The [heavy-lift vertical takeoff and landing uncrewed aerial system, or HVTOL UAS] program partnership with Kaman enables us to broaden our current scope from developing an aerial resupply aircraft for the Marine Corps to creating an autonomous multi-mission aircraft that can autonomously address a wide variety of critical needs,” Singh said.
On Kaman’s end, this isn’t entirely uncharted territory because KARGO UAV, which is a part of the Kaman Corporation umbrella that includes Kaman Air Vehicles, previously worked with the US Marines for the Medium Unmanned Logistics Systems – Air program in 2022. Kaman KARGO UAV General Manager Romin Dasmalchi said he believes the partnership will leverage both companies’ technology and expertise into a successful outcome.
“Between Near Earth’s expertise in aerial autonomy and Kaman’s background in uncrewed logistics and rotorcraft manufacturing, we have the synergistic skills needed to develop a single aerial system that serves many different applications,” Dasmalchi said in the announcement.Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
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