By Lora Premo
The Air Force Research Lab Space Vehicles Directorate (AFRL/RV) Catalyst Accelerator just launched its second cohort under the oversight of Air Force Lt Zoe Casteel. The cohort companies will be focused on Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) challenges, a hot topic right now because the United States is heavily dependent upon the form of PNT known as GPS – the Global Positioning System that not only helps us all navigate, but is also used to keep our world running, from agriculture to navigation to the proper operation of ATMs, gas pumps, and other credit card devices.
GPS has long been considered one of the great technology success stories. Usually it works flawlessly, doing precisely what it is supposed to do without a hitch. In fact, it is such an unqualified success that, as SpaceNews commented late last year, “the military’s global positioning system…is a victim of its own success.” (1)
This is because, as Heather Wilson, Secretary of the Air Force, recently said, “We built a glass house before the enemy had stones. Now they have stones.” (1) Enemy jamming of GPS signals, for example, has become one ever-present threat. There are also environments that are naturally GPS-denied, such as caves, steep mountain valleys and deep inside buildings through which our warfighters must be able to navigate. In total, GPS-dependent, mission-critical efforts include force deployment, force navigation, logistical support and vehicle navigation.
The lack of alternatives to GPS and the need for a back-up system not subject to the same vulnerabilities has been the subject of concern for years. Congressional committees have been studying the problem, and they worry that the Pentagon is not doing enough to assure the continuance of Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) capabilities if GPS becomes compromised.
In the meantime, the Air Force has begun taking on the problem by performing their own research as well as encouraging research among the private sector, often using innovative techniques such as design thinking to collaborate on possible solutions. The AFRL/RV Catalyst Accelerator is one such effort, with each company in the cohort carefully selected by the Air Force for their disruptive PNT technology.
Interview with Lt Zoe Casteel
KiMar Gartman, the Catalyst Campus Program Director for the AFRL/RV Catalyst Accelerator, recently sat down with the AFRL/RV’s Lt Zoe Casteel, Program Manager of their Space Technology Accelerator program, to welcome her to the Catalyst Accelerator and ask her how she came to be here at this place and time.
First, Zoe shared that she graduated from the United States Air Force Academy in 2017 as a Systems Engineer. During her time at the Academy, she took a design thinking class “and thought it was so cool that the Air Force was trying to do this new and innovative thing using the idea of design thinking. I thought, ‘Wow, being an engineer in the Air Force means you get to do a lot of cool things by rapidly generating ideas and technologies!’”
Zoe continued, “Then I got sent to the Air Force Research Lab, expecting us to be throwing out technology, year after year, iterating on things, and rapidly acquisitioning stuff for our end user, Air Force Space Command. Soon, though, I realized that is not at all what we do. In fact, it is common for a program to be in year ten of its acquisition at the research lab. Partly that is due to the fact that things going to space take a while, especially because you have to deliver a year and half early to integrate them on to a spacecraft. Partly it’s because you have to have so many redundant factors, since you can’t touch it once it gets into space. Ultimately, it just isn’t the rapid idea generation that I thought it would be. UNTIL…” Zoe emphasized, leaning forward, her eyes shining, “UNTIL somebody came to me and said ‘Hey, I’m running this program and we are going to bring new capabilities to the Air Force really quickly….’ And I said, ‘Great! I’m really interested.’”
Some intensive vetting followed. Zoe was asked if she was a self-starter, willing to talk to people, willing to push boundaries, and she thought, “Yes, this is exactly who I am!” She went on to explain, “There are two of us running these technology accelerators right now. It’s kind of a cool journey. This is what I pictured. This is what I would like to do for the rest of my life, currently, is to run programs like this. And because I have a background in systems engineering, which is more of a program management for engineering projects type of degree, this fits me a lot better than the kind of basic research people in the lab are doing.”
KiMar then asked a tough question: “Zoe, what inspires you about this new position?”
Zoe’s response was very prompt. “I enjoy going to work every day because I’m helping an end user. So, I don’t show up to work to make somebody money every day, I show up to work knowing that the things I do today could impact somebody ten years from now who is in the field. Someone who is kicking doors down in Afghanistan, whatever our future war is, that’s the person I am showing up to work for.
“What also inspires me is the fact that I can go out in search of technologies that are commercialized right now and bring those technologies to the warfighter six months from now. That is even more amazing, more exciting. I LOVE my job! I couldn’t ask for a better job as a young officer in the Air Force.”
Zoe’s enthusiasm for this critical work supporting the warfighter continued to spill over as she enthused, “I’m looking for technologies, seeing someone with a problem, and I can immediately pair those technologies to that problem and within a couple of months that person could have that in the field. That’s something that you just can’t do with any other type of program in the Air Force.”
Building on Zoe’s obvious excitement, KiMar went on to ask, “What kind of aspirations do you have for the Accelerator and the companies involved?”
Zoe’s enthusiasm spilled over again. “I have big aspirations! I am really excited about the companies in this accelerator. Positioning, Navigation and Timing is such a great area to do something like this in because there are so many segments, so many moving parts, no one can do what they are doing without the help of somebody else. So, I am excited to see what partnerships form, what agreements can be signed, who comes together to say, hey, you have a transmitter, I have a receiver, can we put those two things together, make them compatible, at least talk about it? I think that is one area this will be different from the previous accelerators that we have run. I have high aspirations for the collaborations that come out of this.”
KiMar had one last question: “Can you talk to us about the role that Colorado Springs as a community plays in making an accelerator successful?”
Zoe replied that one attraction of Colorado Springs was the prospect of locating a space technology accelerator at the Catalyst Campus, which was designed to support a collaborative program with partners like the Center for Technology, Research and Commercialization (C-TRAC), the Small Business Development Centers (SBDC) of both Boulder and the Pikes Peak Region, and the Colorado Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC). She went on to say, “We also have Air Force Space Command here in Colorado Springs, so those are our end users at the Space Vehicles Directorate. You also have a thriving community here, a technologically focused community, that includes some investors and the kinds of people who want to come together and get involved in our program. So, we have plenty of people we can bring in to talk, a lot of expertise, potential investors, and, as mentioned earlier, our end users at Air Force Space Command. This is a unique community – without the SBDC or the investors or PTAC or C-TRAC, you’re not going to have those strong business development chops that are needed to build a successful program.”
Now in its fourth week, the AFRL/RV Catalyst Accelerator cohort is going strong; look for interviews with each cohort company being posted to this blog.