Army researchers seek innovation during small business visit

Michael Piasecki, president of DPI UAV Systems, shows visiting Army researchers his company’s small rotary wing unmanned aerial vehicles Oct. 13, 2016, at the company headquarters near Philadelphia. | U.S. Army photo by David McNally, ARL

PHILADELPHIA – Army scientists and engineers are seeking future partnerships with small businesses in an effort to find innovative technology solutions for the future.

A group of 12 mechanical and aerospace engineers from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory toured two aviation companies run by two brothers in the Philadelphia area Oct. 13.

Michael Piasecki, president of DPI UAV Systems, develops small rotary wing unmanned aerial vehicles for military and commercial customers.

“These are complex systems that you have to build test infrastructure to support and to test early and hopefully with our proximity to the Army Research Lab, they can take advantage of our experience in this field,” Piasecki said.

Piasecki’s path to aviation research and development may have been destiny. In 1936, his father, aviation pioneer Frank Piasecki, and a group of engineering students from the University of Pennsylvania, designed and built their own helicopter. By the 1950s, he had formed the Piasecki Aircraft Corporation.

“I am a product of my father, who was a very passionate inventor and responsible for many aircraft,” Piasecki said. “He gave me this passion, of a love of flight, but more importantly a love for solving engineering problems.”

On the same compound near the Philadelphia International Airport, Michael’s brother, John Piasecki, president and chief executive officer of the present-day Piasecki Aircraft Corporation, showcased what his company is doing, which among other things, includes work for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Piasecki is building a prototype for DARPA. The Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System, or ARES, is a “vertical takeoff and landing flight module designed to operate as an unmanned platform capable of transporting a variety of payloads,” according to the agency’s website.

John Piasecki sees a future where UAVs play a big role in moving payloads for both military and commercial applications.

“I think the same capabilities that are being looked at by Amazon and Google, of logistics on-demand capability using small UAVs, while the scale might be a little bit larger for the military, it’s really a very similar approach,” Piasecki said.

ARL’s Open Campus initiative guides Army researchers toward a new business model for building an integrated work environment with academia, industry and government, “thus fueling innovation through research and development collaboration,” according to ARL officials.

“As a part of the Open Campus initiative and our own efforts, we want to collaborate with small companies where they bring in a lot of innovations and a lot of drive to innovate, but they may not have access to a lot of expensive facilities or capabilities,” said Dr. Rajneesh Singh, a team lead with the laboratory’s Vehicle Technology Directorate and the visit organizer. “These kinds of visits give us the ability to develop beneficial partnerships where both parties, both ARL and these small companies, can join together and take things to the next level.”

Singh said there are a lot of things you can’t learn from reading papers or watching videos.

“By having face-to-face meetings, by seeing the hardware facilities that they have, by seeing some of the prototypes that they have, we got to learn, much better than would have been possible through phone discussions, or by reading published papers,” he said. “We have identified quite a few opportunities and their response has been very positive. They do want to collaborate with us on several opportunities. There may be a CRADA in the future.”

CRADAs are cooperative research and development agreements between a government agency and a private company or university to work together on research and development.

“Small business has a tremendous amount to offer the Defense Department,” said John Piasecki, “particularly in getting innovative ideas and demonstrating them in an affordable and timely fashion.”

Piasecki said another brother plays at integral role at Piasecki Aircraft.

“Fred Piasecki is the chief technology officer and chairman of the board of Piasecki Aircraft with overall responsibility for technical management and execution of PiAC’s flight research programs,” he said. “Large organizations have a challenge in getting new ideas demonstrated. I think small business has a big role to play and I think ARL and the government labs in general could have a very important role in providing resources and a framework within which these innovative entrepreneurial companies can take their ideas from concept into hardware and in flight.”

ARL’s vision is to be the “premier advocacy organization committed to maximizing small business,” according to its Small Business Opportunities website.

“There was a lot of discussion of technology of joint interest,” Singh said. “Small, nimble companies can be good partners.”

Story by David McNally, ARL