Special Operations Command to Open ‘DroneWerx’ to Reach Robotics, Drone Companies

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Lance Cpl. Cesar Salinas, an infantry Marine with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, assists his squad by providing reconnaissance with an Instant Eye at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., July 13, 2016. The system is meant to increase initial visibility of the enemy before the Marines need to engage them and was built by the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory to assist Marines. The lab is conducting a Marine Air-Ground Task Force Integrated Experiment in conjunction with Rim of the Pacific exercise to explore new gear and assess its capabilities for potential future use. The Warfighting Lab identifies possible challenges of the future, develops new warfighting concepts, and tests new ideas to help develop equipment that meets the challenges of the future operating environment.U.S. Special Operations Command’s top weapons buyer said this week the Defense Department wants to create a drone robotics innovation lab similar to the one started by SOCOM called SOFWERX.

SOFWERX opened last year in an old tattoo parlor miles outside the gates of SOCOM’s headquarters in Tampa, Fla. SOCOM opened SOFWERX to improve outreach to commercial technology companies — not exclusive to robotics and drones.

Since it opened last year, military officials across the services has cited SOFWERX as a success story for commercial outreach. SOFWERX hosts competitions and hackathons as well as brainstorming sessions between commercial engineers and special operators in an unclassified setting.

The SOFWERX offices sit in a nondescript building in a Tampa neighborhood near SOCOM headquarters where the city's old cigar industry used to be based. (TandemNSI photo)

The SOFWERX offices sit in a nondescript building in a Tampa neighborhood near SOCOM headquarters where the city’s old cigar industry used to be based. (TandemNSI photo)

James “Hondo” Geurts, the acquisition executive for Special Operations Forces Acquisitions, Technology and Logistics, told Defense News’ Jen Judson in an interview this week that there are discussions to start DroneWerx. The name might change, but the concept will be similar to SOFWERX with a focus on drones and robotics.

In a sign of SOFWERX’s popularity, the Army’s director of the Rapid Capabilities Office, said earlier this month that the Army is also exploring to possibility to open ArmyWerx to improve outreach.

SOCOM opened SOFWERX as a joint partnership with the Doolittle Institute. The SOFWERX building looks more like a Silicon Valley incubator than a government building. It features a workshop for innovators to build prototypes and meeting rooms to sketch out ideas to tackle problems faced by special operations teams.

Geurts told Defense News he expects to open DroneWerx in the next 90 days. SOCOM would work together with the Strategic Capabilities Office on the effort.

Many of the special operations officials meeting in Tampa this week for the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference have spoken about the increased threat commercial drones poses in the fight against ISIS, especially in Iraq.

Geurts told Defense News he expects DroneWerx to tackle drones, robotics and machine learning. The first focus will be swarming. Notably, DIUx has issued multiple requests through its Commercial Solutions Openings program for drone systems companies.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency stood up a program to engage with early stage robotics companies called the Robotics Fast Track program. DARPA officials designed the program to contract with companies issuing contracts in under 60 days to robotics companies to build prototypes.

TandemNSI hosted a national tour to promote the program and engage with nearly 1,000 robotics companies in hubs like San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, D.C. and Boston. The program significantly boosted the number of robotics companies working with DARPA.

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