WASHINGTON — Greg Kuperman, program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Strategic Technology Office, worries that innovations emerging from the commercial space industry will never reach potential customers in the U.S. military. 

A key reason for that, Kuperman told SpaceNews, is that discussions about next-generation technologies, particularly in the space sector, quickly veer into classified territory, and many commercial businesses developing these technologies don’t have security clearances. 

An example is the sector of the industry developing compact satellite antennas, he said. Much of the leading-edge technology is coming from commercial businesses and startups that DoD never hears about. 

 “The innovators who are good at seeing the problems and coming up with clever solutions are kind of left on the outside looking in,” he said.

Kuperman, who has worked on classified defense programs for more than 15 years, is looking to attract more space businesses to work with DARPA. He currently oversees a program trying to develop low-cost optical satellite terminals, and a separate project seeking innovation in space sensors for low Earth orbit. 

Satellite antennas — including design, materials and manufacturing techniques — that can increase performance at less weight and cost are a key area of interest for DARPA, he said. “But in order to actually appropriately say what the problem is, I need to have a conversation at the classified level.”

In conversations with people in the industry, Kuperman found that many of the innovators developing technologies of interest to DARPA don’t have clearances. “This happened so many times that I was just like, ‘This is ridiculous.’” 

‘Bridges’ initiative

In an effort to fix this problem, Kuperman’s office launched an initiative called Bridges to help companies get security clearances to work on defense contracts. “We want to bring innovators into a space where we can actually begin talking with them,” he said. 

Bridges is short for “Bringing Classified Innovation to Defense and Government Systems.” 

Across national security agencies, he said, “there’s a huge recognition that we need to work with small businesses. But the piece that no one’s really gone after is the clearance piece,”

Bridges is trying to “solve that valley of death with respect to clearances and getting the folks from the commercial side into the cleared conversations.”

Credit: DARPA

White papers on next-generation satellites antennas are due June 9. Kuperman said DARPA will select the most promising concepts and will help selected bidders apply for clearances so they can work with the agency and with potential military customers. 

DARPA will set up a consortium that will help companies eligible to bid for U.S. defense contracts to apply for clearances needed to work on classified programs, known as DD Form 254. The agency is partnering with MITRE Corp, a federally funded nonprofit that will provide consortium members access to classified office space, computers and telephones at locations in Boston, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

“We’re going to invite proposals from companies by topic area,” said Kuperman.

Future topic areas beyond space  

Satellite antenna designs was chosen as the first topic because it’s an area “where we’re seeing kind of a generational leap in technology that has not yet penetrated the defense market.” 

Of particular interest are next-generation antennas to communicate with low Earth orbit satellites. “If you think that you are moving way past the current state of the art, we want to hear from you,” said Kuperman. 

DARPA, for example, wants to attract companies working on ultra-slim metamaterial antenna arrays, said Kuperman. The commercial industry has invested in this technology, which has broad applications for satellite communications but has not been exploited for military systems. 

“I’ve been very impressed with commercial developments in metamaterial antenna arrays,” Kuperman said. 

Metamaterials are materials engineered to have properties not found in naturally occurring materials. They promise smaller, lighter, better performing miniature antennas with increased performance, said Kuperman. “They offer the possibility of being 10 to 100 times cheaper and 10 to 100 times lower power.” For the military, this means “I can proliferate these and do things that I’ve never thought I could do before.”

Companies like SpaceX and Kymeta produce widely used flat satcom antennas “but no one has demonstrated that at the size and scale that DoD needs for air and space applications,” said Kuperman. “There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done there.”

For the next-generation antenna project, he said, “we’re also bringing in our partners across the DoD from the Air Force, the Army, from Special Operations Forces, the Navy so they can come in and discuss their problems at the appropriate classified levels.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...