May 9, 2007 1:10 PM PDT

A peek at next-gen military hardware

ARLINGTON, Va.--I'm in a cavernous exhibit hall filled with the next generation of military technology: prototypes for the latest gear that American forces may eventually use to kill, maim, detect and otherwise frustrate potential adversaries.

Models of sleek unmanned aerial vehicles draw inquisitive crowds. Some contraptions are supposed to confirm the presence of explosives and toxic chemicals with far more accuracy than their predecessors. Software vendors claim their products will do everything from sensing underwater mines to estimating when vital ship systems are about to go bad.

Over lunch, I hear a representative from a major defense contractor remark: "It's like being a kid in a candy store, isn't it?"

I'm at the Navy Opportunity Forum, a three-day event for small businesses to gather and draw attention to technologies fueled in part by six figures in federal grant money. In some ways, it combines a deep-pocket trade show feel--complete with a string quartet at one evening's reception and three-course lunches--with something of an amped-up school science fair look.

All the small companies are about two years into crafting their nascent products. They've already delivered compelling enough proposals in response to military requests for particular technological solutions, and they've already landed as much as $850,000--and in some cases more--in start-up money through the Navy's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. But now they're approaching the phase at which their taxpayer-dollar stream will dry up.

That's because the SBIR program isn't in charge of financing the final stage, which is commercializing products for the market and the fleet. The companies must be on the prowl for help, and the some 1,200 representatives from larger defense contractors, academia and military offices on the forum's attendee list are viewed as a prime starting point. There's time to swap business cards at daytime coffee breaks and evening cocktail parties, and the more serious negotiators can reserve private conference rooms for one-on-one meetings.

It's not a new process, nor is it limited to the Navy. Established by Congress in 1982, the SBIR program has sponsored some 90,000 projects to the tune of some $19 billion. Participants span all of the Pentagon arms and a total of 11 federal agencies including NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Departments of Homeland Security, Energy and Transportation.

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Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who heads the Senate Small Business Committee and breezed in one day for a luncheon keynote speech, told us that the program is vital to give a lift to small companies whose ideas may be deemed too risky to finance by the normal market channels. That's particularly for defense-related items, which don't have a "normal" marketplace, he told us as we nibbled on salads in a mammoth hotel ballroom.

As I troll the exhibit hall and absorb 20-minute presentations, I'm struck by how scattered this year's 174 offerings are. But it's mostly a reflection of what the Navy itself requested.

After all, its latest call for proposals, issued last month, described the need for everything from an environmentally friendly cleaning solvent for removing hydraulic fluid from aircrafts, to sensors that can be dropped or thrown into ship compartments and send back information about the presence of fire, smoke or toxic elements.

Even officials who work closely with the government end of the grant program are loath to pinpoint the standouts at this year's gathering. Steve Sullivan, who works in the Navy SBIR Program Office, could point to only one major thread: affordability. In other words, because of Defense Department-wide budget squeezes, a promising prototype may not earn the military's stamp of approval if its price tag is too high, he said.

But I tend to hear less about the companies' projected price tags and more about the gaps their products are, at times, well on their way to filling. Mike Phillips, director of program development for Griffin Analytical Technologies, described two portable devices--one the size of a suitcase, the other the size of a shoebox--that can take air samples and confirm the presence of explosives and toxic chemicals in near real time.

Phillips said the gadgets, which should be ready for full-scale production and certification late this year and early next year, could be applied not only to military operations but also be mounted, say, in air conditioning intakes in buildings or planted in public areas where terrorist events may be more likely.

A number of business representatives also talked animatedly about prototypes for UAVs and related software that promise to bestow the devices with more autonomy and intelligence, theoretically freeing up humans for other tasks--or at least keeping them further away from harm. Some of their inventions are targeted for military use as soon as next year.

CONTINUED: The next Taser…
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