​White House eyes new frontiers with $300M in cross-sector tech investments

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The White House announced Thursday more than $300 million in new investments to tackle everything from the administration’s “BRAIN” Initiative to smart transportation and small satellite development.

The commitments seek to further support some of the administration’s darling science and technology initiatives, such as creating smarter cities, developing small satellites, better understanding the brain through research and advancing precision medicine, which were center stage during the White House’s first Frontiers Conference.

“Innovation is part of our DNA. Science has always been central to our progress, and it’s playing a leading role in overcoming so many of our greatest challenges,” said President Barack Obama in remarks at the conference. “Only with science do we have the chance to cure cancer or Parkinson’s or other diseases that steal our loved ones from us way too soon. Only through science will we have the capacity to reengineer our cities as populations grow to be smarter and more productive.”

In conjunction with the funding announced Thursday, the White House also revealed its Police Data Initiative and the Data-Driven Justice Initiative have each grown to more than 100 communities across the nation.

The commitments announced Thursday include:
– $165 million in public and private funds for cities to use technology to solve big problems, like traffic congestion;
– $70 million in new National Institutes of Health funds for research to better understand the brain;
– $16 million and four new partners for the Precision Medicine Initiative national research study; and
– $50 million in federal funds to develop small satellite technology.

As part of the $165 million for city-related initiatives, Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx also announced Thursday the department will contribute nearly $65 million in grants under two initiatives.

“From automated vehicles to connected infrastructure to data analytics, technology is transforming how we move around our country, and some of the most exciting innovation is happening at the local level,” Foxx said in a statement. “These grants will enable cities and rural communities to harness new technologies to tackle hard problems like reducing congestion, connecting people to mass transit, and enhancing safety.”

One initiative includes money for eight different projects that will seek to reduce traffic congestion. And one of those is a $6 million endeavor for Denver to alleviate commuter congestion on its roads.

Pittsburgh received $11 million to execute ideas from its Smart Cities Challenge application under that initiative, according to the announcement.

Another grant program will award money to eight projects that will deal with on-demand concepts in transit, Foxx said at the Frontiers Conference Thursday.

One of those projects is in Dallas, Texas. Dallas Area Rapid Transit is getting “$1.2 million to integrate ride-sharing services into its GoPass ticketing app,” according to the announcement.

“The project will create an integrated, multimodal application that leverages ride-sharing services, improving access to DART stations, particularly in non-walkable areas not well served by transit,” it said.

When it comes to small satellites, agencies in the coming weeks are going to announce “investments and new steps they will take to advance the state of the art in small-satellite technology and increase the adoption of ‘smallsats’ for commercial, scientific and national security needs,” according to the White House fact sheet.

As a part of that, NASA will invest $30 million to support public-private partnerships for earth science observation using commercial small spacecraft.

And the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is buying imagery from smallsat startup Planet’s constellation to the tune of $20 million.

In his remarks at the Frontier conference Thursday, Robbie Schingler, co-founder and chief strategy officer of Planet, said crucial to the company’s success is borrowing on the sensor revolution driven by the consumer electronic industry and applying that success to spacecraft.

Planet decreased its satellite size and got its weight down to only 5 kilograms, and learned how to mass manufacture it.

Their “doves,” as they call their satellites, have gone through 13 major design iterations, Schingler said, and since they are able to launch into space as secondary payloads, it allows their company to iterate on the technology more quickly.

“Bringing the sensor revolution into space means that the satellite can be smaller,” Schingler said. “If the satellite can be smaller, then it costs less to get one into space.”

And that reduced cost and ease of production makes it easier to design missions that are more responsive and agile, he said.

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