GTRI successfully commands multiple UAVs to perform autonomous formation flight

These days, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) typically fly alone with a team of ground operators controlling their activities through teleoperation or waypoint-based routing. But one aircraft can only carry so many sensors, limiting its capabilities. That’s one reason why a fleet of autonomous aircraft can be better than one flying alone.

In one of the first autonomous demonstrations, the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) has successfully commanded three fully autonomous, collaborating UAVs. The machines flew in close formation at the same altitude, separated by approximately 50 meters as they executed  figure-eight patterns. The research is part of GTRI’s efforts to improve the capabilities for autonomous systems collaborating as teams, thereby reducing the load on human operators.

“For autonomous systems to scale effectively, future systems will need the ability to perform with a higher level of autonomy,” said GTRI Chief Scientist Lora Weiss, who leads GTRI’s UAV research. “Human operators must be able to provide high-level task descriptions, allowing the systems to figure out for themselves how to dynamically form teams and autonomously collaborate to complete tasks.”

GTRI operated the three UAVs over the skies of Fort Benning near Columbus, Ga. A single plane was initially designated as the leader and commanded to fly autonomous orbits. The two “follower” UAVs joined the orbits, flying with rotational offsets of 15 and 30 degrees, respectively, from the leader.

“There are logistical challenges with quickly getting multiple planes in the air,” said Charles Pippin, a GTRI senior research scientist who led development of the autonomy algorithms.

The lead UAV shared its current position with the follower UAVs several times per second, allowing the followers to calculate the control changes necessary to reach the desired position. The followers also used the leader’s information to send commands to their on-board autopilots, which adjusted the controls and throttle for each aircraft. GTRI’s autonomous algorithms and applications are general enough that they can be used with different UAVs and autopilot systems.

The aircraft in the Fort Benning demonstration were quarter-scale Piper Cub airframes with a wingspan of approximately eight feet. They are able to carry a mission computer, autopilot system, and sensor payloads.

Autonomous systems working in teams have numerous future applications designed to improve lives and reduce costs. For example, multiple UAVs could provide several different camera angles while searching for a missing person. While surveying hurricanes, one plane could carry a sensor to check wind speed in one area while another UAV measures energy in another. The same is true for wildfires. One vehicle could determine the size of the blaze while another uses different sensors to measure the heat or direction of the inferno.

“Multiple planes working together also provides flexibility if one aircraft fails or is diverted somewhere else during a mission,” explained Pippin.

As the use of unmanned systems becomes more prevalent, increasing levels of autonomy will become necessary to improve the safety, robustness, and quality of these systems. GTRI’s unmanned systems research has the potential to positively impact many different industries, including crop inspection and spraying, delivery of goods, wildlife management and utility inspection

“GTRI’s ongoing research in these areas will make UAVs safer, and cheaper to operate,” said Weiss.

GTRI currently conducts collaborative UAV research using a collection of different airframes. GTRI has modified these aircraft in different ways, including equipping them with RF modems and cameras. The aircraft can also be equipped with pods to carry customer-specific payloads. The aircraft have been invaluable for research on collaborative control of multiple UAVs and have enabled development of algorithms to support more sophisticated collaborative missions.

The recent UAV tests follow a 2010 GTRI demonstration at Fort Benning that featured two small-scale aircraft and a full-size self-driving automobile completing a mission without human interaction. The two projects are part of a Memorandum of Understanding GTRI has with the Army post to conduct tests of advanced technologies.

Source: http://gtri.gatech.edu/casestudy/gtri-multiple-uavs-perform-autonomous-formation-fl

Pentagon’s sole-source contracts continue to dwindle, says GAO

The Defense Department is doing its part to curb the number of sole-source contracts awarded without competition and is properly justifying—in most instances—their use to help develop small, disadvantaged businesses, an audit found.

The Government Accountability Office’s Sept. 9 report to the House and Senate Armed Services committees evaluated sole-source contracts worth more than $20 million under the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) program and found that the Pentagon in fiscal 2013 continued a “significant decrease” in such contracts. It awarded five in 2013, each worth $20 million, compared with 27 contracts valued at $2 billion in 2009.

All five of the recent contracts were justified as being “in the best interest of the government,” though three of them failed to fully meet Federal Acquisition Regulation requirements that relevant officials sign off on them in a timely manner.

Fifty-five sole-source contracts were awarded under the 8(a) program over the past four years, the report found, led by the Army with 37, the Navy with 13, the Air Force with two, and three elsewhere in the department.

Keep reading this article at: http://www.govexec.com/defense/2014/09/pentagons-sole-source-contracts-continue-dwindle-says-gao/93899/

Court of Federal Claims rejects attempt to shoehorn what it characterizes as a contract administration matter into a bid protest

Recently, the CFC rejected a bid protest action filed by Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR) with respect to one of the Army’s LOGCAP contracts. The contractor had performed the logistics and civil augmentation contract, under which the Army issued task orders for different years, on a “cost-reimbursement basis.” When the Army tried to change to a firm-fixed price arrangement for the 2013 close-out period, KBR balked and refused to submit a proposal—instead filing a bid protest action. The CFC dismissed the case, ruling that KBR did not properly invoke the court’s bid protest jurisdiction but rather was attempting to litigate a contract administration dispute.

After years of submitting cost-reimbursement proposals under the LOGCAP agreement, it seems reasonable that KBR didn’t want to switch to a firm-fixed price basis for the close-out period, as “there was ‘no way to accurately define the scope or duration of work’ and [the] ‘[l]egal, administrative compliance, audit response, vendor issues, subcontract close-out, and dispute resolution . . . are all unknowns.'”

Keep reading this article at: http://www.mondaq.com/article.asp?articleid=334576

IG says Army paid too much upgrading Russian copters

U.S. Army contracting officers overpaid an American company upgrading Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters as contract costs increased almost 70 percent, according to an audit by the Pentagon inspector general.

The Army Contracting Command has responded that it will seek to recoup $128,990 of $151,543 in what the audit called “excess fees” paid since 2010 to Columbia, Maryland-based Science and Engineering Services Inc. The remaining $22,553 in fees was justified, according to the audit by the inspector general dated July 28.

While the amounts wouldn’t put a dent in the Pentagon’s $496 billion annual base budget, the inspector general’s report is the latest of three to question the contracting practices of an Army-run office set up in 2010 to manage the purchase and maintenance of foreign-made helicopters such as the medium-lift Mi-17 transport helicopters sold to U.S. allies Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

Keep reading this article at: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-08-12/u-s-army-paid-too-much-upgrading-russian-copters-audit.html

Contracting officers given overly high marks by Army

Army contracting apparently is like the schools at Lake Wobegon — everybody is above average.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers fell victim to the biggest bid-rigging scandal in the history of federal procurement in 2011 — the same year the Army’s cadre of more than 5,600 contracting officers received unusually stellar job ratings.

Out of 5,670 contracting officers, just two received an unsatisfactory performance rating in fiscal 2011, while more than 60 percent of the Army’s procurement workers were given the highest rating of “role models,” according to a previously undisclosed 2013 Army Audit Agency review that found “there are few, if any, consequences for unfavorable contracting practices.”

Even personnel working in “high-risk” offices often managed to score above-average job-performance ratings, according to the report, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, which officials said signaled widespread problems of job ratings in government reviews.

“It’s not just contracting officers,” Harry Hallock, the Army’s deputy assistant secretary for procurement, acknowledged in an interview with The Washington Times on Thursday.

“It’s frankly across the Army, across DOD, across the federal government. I think over time we have had an issue with performance appraisals matching performance,” he said.

Keep reading this article at: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jun/19/contractors-are-given-overly-high-marks-by-army/?page=all#pagebreak

Army to Seek Northrop refunds over inflated labor rates

The U.S. Army will press Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC) for refunds after the Pentagon’s inspector general found the contractor charged the service inflated labor rates on programs to fight drug trafficking.

The Army Contracting Command will conduct its own audit “as soon as feasible” of Northrop’s billings and the resumes of subcontractor workers to determine how much money should be repaid, spokeswoman Giselle Lyons said in an e-mail.

Allegations in the report “are being further investigated by the U.S. Army Contracting Command,” she said. “The command is implementing the recommendations proposed to help ensure the proper management and oversight of current and future contract actions.”

Northrop, the fifth-biggest U.S. contractor, charged the Army excessive labor rates for almost six years for more than 300 subcontractor employees working in Afghanistan and in the U.S. on counter-narcotics efforts abroad, the inspector general said in a May 13 report labeled “For Official Use Only” and obtained by Bloomberg News.

Keep reading this article at: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-05-29/army-to-seek-northrop-refunds-over-inflated-labor-rates.html

Army’s bright acquisition spot: Howitzer upgrades

The U.S. Army is moving forward with plans to develop upgraded versions of the M109 self-propelled howitzer in one of the service’s few bright acquisition spots.

The Army is “fully committed” to the M109 Paladin Integrated Management, or PIM, program, Army Secretary John McHugh said on Thursday during a hearing of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.

“We need a new self-propelled artillery howitzer to keep up with our formations and so we’re going forward,” he said in response to a question from Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., whose district includes Fort Sill, which houses the Army and Marine Corps’ field artillery schools.

McHugh acknowledged the service’s troubled acquisition history, including many failed attempts to replace its Cold War-era fleets of vehicles and helicopters. Most recently, it scrapped the Ground Combat Vehicle, designed to replace the Bradley fighting vehicle, due in part to automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.

But the secretary said the M109 development program is moving forward, albeit slowly. BAE Systems Land & Armaments LP, part of the U.S. subsidiary of the London-based defense contractor, received a contract potentially worth almost $700 million for initial production of the vehicles.

Keep reading this article at: http://www.dodbuzz.com/2014/03/27/armys-bright-acquisition-spot-howitzer-upgrades/ 

DoD re-emphasizes importance of contractor past-performance reporting

The Defense Department’s contracting chief, Frank Kendall, has called for renewed emphasis on the importance of agency reporting on contractor performance.

In a January 9, 2014 memorandum to the Department of Defense (DoD) acquisition workforce, DoD Undersecretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics points out that while the reporting goal for FY14 is 95 percent, compliance with the goal is at only 81.5 percent department-wide.

Only first quarter FY14 data are available at this point.  Past performance reports are to be filed in Past Performance Information Retrieval System (PPIRS).

An analysis of first quarter FY14 data shows that while five units within DoD have a reporting record of 90 percent or better, there are eight DoD units with 50 percent or lower reporting compliance.  Most of these are small units with a small amount of contracting activity.

A DoD unit with a significant number of contract closeouts coupled with a high rate of reporting non-compliance is the Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA).  DCMA’s reporting percentage is 68.5 percent.

The  Navy, Army and Air Force have the highest numbers of contracts and contract closeouts.  While their levels of reporting are relatively high (85, 78, and 87 percent, respectively), each has a high number of overdue reports as of the end of the first quarter.  The Army has 8,810 past due reports, while the Navy and Air Force have 3,023 and 1,737 late reports, respectively.

The memorandum and its attachment can be seen here: USA000068-14-DPAP.

GAO finds agencies need guidance on use of reverse auctions

In a study released on December 11, 2013, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the potential benefits of reverse auctions–competition and savings–have not been maximized by federal agencies.

Key findings include:

 

  • Over one-third of fiscal year 2012 reverse auctions had no interactive bidding, where vendors bid against each other to drive prices lower.
  • Almost half of the reverse auctions were used to obtain items from pre-existing contracts that in some cases resulted in agencies paying two fees–one to use the contract and one to use the reverse auction contractor’s services.
  • There is a lack of comprehensive government-wide guidance and the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), which is the primary document for publishing uniform policies and procedures related to federal acquisitions, does not specifically address reverse auctions. As a result, confusion exists about their use and agencies may be limited in their ability to maximize the potential benefits of reverse auctions.

The Departments of the Army, Homeland Security, the Interior, and Veterans Affairs used reverse auctions to acquire predominantly commercial items and services–primarily for information technology products and medical equipment and supplies–although the mix of products and services varied among agencies. Most–but not all–of the auctions resulted in contracts with relatively small dollar value awards–typically $150,000 or less–and a high rate of awards to small businesses. The four agencies steadily increased their use of reverse auctions from fiscal years 2008 through 2012, with about $828 million in contract awards in 2012 alone. GAO was not able to analyze data from a fifth agency, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), because it collected only summary level information during fiscal year 2012. DLA guidance states that the reverse auction pricing tool should be used for all competitive purchases over $150,000.

Four agencies used the same commercial service provider to conduct their reverse auctions and paid a variable fee for this service, which was no more than 3 percent of the winning bid amount. DLA conducts its own auctions through a purchased license. Regardless of the method used, according to agency officials, contracting officers are still responsible for following established contracting procedures when using reverse auctions.

More details on this GAO study may be found at: http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-108

Army seeks to expand public-private partnerships

The Army is looking to expand privatization efforts to nearly all commercial-like services, according to Army officials.

Lt. Gen. Michael Ferriter, the Army’s top installations official, told a conference of the Association of the United States Army that the privatization of housing and utilities has been a success and the Army is looking to expand privatization efforts further.

“We will partner with anyone who can cut costs,”  Ferriter said at a conference of the Association of the United States Army.

He noted that the Army’s privatization of housing and utilities has been a success and said a likely next step is in-home child care within local communities. He said the Army will test various business models to make sure they work financially before rolling out something across all installations.

Another candidate: dining halls. The Army is looking at issuing dining cards that could be used at its installations and at local restaurants, according to Army officials.

Keep reading this article at: http://www.federaltimes.com/article/20131028/DEPARTMENTS01/310280009/Army-seeks-expand-public-private-partnerships