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Updated 6:02 PM EDT, Wed, Apr 01, 2020

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First DIUx Contracts will Develop Smarter Land, Sea and Aerial Drones

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(Photo : Department of Defense) Defense secretary Ash Carter talks about DIUx

The U.S. Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental (DIUx), also called DARPA's "little brother," has awarded its first 12 contracts, three of which will dramatically advance the Pentagon's push for smarter autonomous weapons on land, sea and air run by artificial intelligence (AI).

Established in April 2015 at the initiative of Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (an avowed physics wonk), DIUx serves as a bridge between the U.S. military and private companies operating at the cutting edge of technology.

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DIUx is an "experiment," according to company executives. It continuously iterates on how best to identify, contract and prototype novel innovations through sources traditionally not available to the Department of Defense (DoD).

The secretive agency's ultimate goal is accelerating technology into the hands of the U.S. armed forces to maintain the huge technological edge that's one of the main reasons the U.S. military is the world's most powerful. It has offices in Boston, Massachusetts, and Austin, Texas.

DIUx recently awarded 12 contracts for fiscal year 2016 with a total of value of $36.3 million. DIUx accounted for $8.3 million of the funding, with the rest coming from different branches of the DoD. Earlier this month, Carter announced there were $65 million in DIUx contracts under work.

A spokeswoman for DIUx said the group is confident its "healthy pipeline" of programs will "at least reach what the Secretary announced," but could not say when those agreements would go formally on contract.

Carter first announced the creation of DIUx in mid-2015. But following a slow start and complaints  the program was not connecting with the commercial industry, DIUx was "rebooted" this May with new leadership and an expansion.

DIUx director Raj Shah described the last few months of the agency as a "fast paced sprint" and indicated his team is trying to catch its breath and assess how the first wave of deals has worked.  The fact DIUx is providing some of its own funds for these contracts is critical, said Shah.

Among these contracts is $12.6 million for "High Speed Drone Aircraft" to four U.S. firms. A major focus for the Pentagon is the "loyal wingman" concept where autonomous or semi-autonomous systems work with fighters like the F-35 Lightning II.

To make that work, the Pentagon needs to test capabilities on a high-speed drone test bed. DIUx is working with commercial drone vendors to use such a system for tests.

Another contract is one worth $1.5 million for an "Unmanned Maritime Surface Vehicle." This contract with DoD as its customer is to develop wind-powered autonomous sailing platforms that can operate on the surface of the water to "provide persistent maritime surveillance and reconnaissance for the Navy, and navigate the ocean autonomously without the need for manned crews and human pilots."

There's the $1 million contract for an "Autonomous Indoor Tactical Drone." DIUx is investing in small tactical handheld quadcopters that soldiers moving in tight quarters can deploy for reconnaissance. The U.S. Marines have been demanding they be provided with cheap quadcopters. It intends to have all its combat squads operate a quadcopter for reconnaissance.

These quadcopters are designed specifically to fly indoors and can "autonomously speed through built and natural structures, mapping out their interiors and identifying threats without the need for a human pilot or a global positioning system (GPS)."

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