COVID-Cleaning Robots, GPS Abnormality Detectors Top DOT’s Small Business Wishlist


The agency is now accepting applications for the first phase of its 2021 SBIR program. 

Artificial intelligence to inspect, fix and sanitize transit vehicles and robots that can independently decontaminate those and other travel assets are among an array of research solutions and concepts the Transportation Department intends to explore through its latest Small Business Innovation Research program.

The agency on Thursday issued a solicitation for the first phase of its fiscal 2021 SBIR effort, inviting not-so-large entities to offer up fresh proposals for novel ideas to meet complex, federal research and development needs. It follows a pre-solicitation launched last month.

Offers will need to “demonstrate a sound approach to the investigation of an important transportation related scientific or engineering problem,” officials note in the document, adding that and research will have to have “relevance to the improvement of some aspect of the national transportation system or to the enhancement of the ability of” DOT or its sub-components.

The massive, mobility-focused agency is one of 11 that can currently conduct the government’s competitive, awards-based SBIR programs, which are meant to stimulate low-risk, high-tech innovation and help advance the commercialization of products that meet federal needs.   

For this specific 2021, phase I work, the Transportation Department intends to fund proposals across various research topics up to $150,000 a piece—and the resulting contracts are anticipated to play out over six months. Only those that successfully complete the first phase will be able to apply for the second. Research and demonstrations for some topics in that next round could be funded up to $1 million. 

Areas of research interest are organized in the solicitation under DOT’s six operating administrations. The Federal Transit Administration, for instance, is keen to see how it can use AI to keep its vast transit vehicle fleet in working order. It’s also on the hunt for research and prototypes for autonomous robots that can be used to disinfect and decontaminate buses, trains and other transit assets or facilities.

Such self-moving, cleaning machines have proven particularly useful in modern times, which the agency’s solicitation points to, noting that the “robots have the potential to find use in the transit industry to reduce risk of exposure to transit riders and operators and [are] especially relevant in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration calls for innovation in lithium-ion battery packaging, to help mitigate the potential for fires during transport, and one of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s calls is for a proof-of-concept to develop “an automated deployment mechanism for traffic warning devices on commercial automated vehicles.” Noting that self-driving vehicles also depend heavily on trustworthy, accurate GPS, the solicitation also confirmed that the Federal Highway Administration aims to work with potential partners to develop “the reference hardware for a low cost, robust receiver that can detect abnormality in GPS signal.”

Research across those and the agency’s other administrations also includes work to develop a device to assess the impacts of pavements with additives that present environmental concerns, devices that can measure driver’s readiness—and more.

DOT will host a pre-offer webinar Feb. 11 for those who are considering applying to the SBIR program to attend. The deadline for proposal submissions is set for March 8.