PSCR’s Innovation Accelerator Program Announces $30 million Grant Program to ‘Pull the Future Forward’ for Public Safety

December 22, 2016
NIST’s Public Safety Communications Research Division recently announced a $30 million R&D grant program focused on key technology areas for public safety.
NIST’s Public Safety Communications Research Division recently announced a $30 million R&D grant program focused on key technology areas for public safety.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Public Safety Communications Research Division (PSCR) has announced a $30 million grant funding opportunity to accelerate research, development, production, and testing of key broadband technologies and capabilities for first responders.

According to the funding opportunity announcement, eligible applicants include institutions of higher education, non-profit organizations, for-profit organizations, state and local governments, Indian tribes, hospitals, foreign public entities, and foreign governments. Applications must be submitted to by February 28, 2017.

FirstNet’s Chief Technology Officer Jeff Bratcher recently spoke with PSCR Director Dereck Orr on the details of the grant program:

Jeff Bratcher, FirstNet CTO: PSCR is a critical partner to FirstNet, with a very forward looking mission. As background, can you describe PSCR’s overall mission?

Dereck Orr, Director of PSCR: PSCR has been around, if not by name, in form and function, for more than 20 years and has always focused on public safety specific communications issues. We have really served as the objective scientific advisor and laboratory for public safety and industry to understand important technical issues that impact public safety’s ability to communicate.

Our core mission at PSCR is to help public safety document its requirements, take those requirements to the standards bodies, and evaluate technologies in a laboratory setting with very well defined test protocols. And now because of the legislation that provided us with funding for research and development – along with the funds provided for FirstNet – we also have the capability to fund outside organizations to really push innovation in the core technologies that are going to make broadband a transformative technology for public safety.

JB: As you noted, as part of the same legislation that created FirstNet, NIST was allocated specific funding in the amount of $300 million (raised from FCC spectrum auctions) to further and accelerate research and development for public safety broadband technologies. Is this grant program part of that funding? And what is the purpose of this grant program?

DO: This is actually the first big allocation of that $300 million since we received it from the spectrum auctions starting last year. The entire purpose of the Public Safety Innovation Accelerator program is to rapidly expand the number of people looking into the core communications issues related to public safety broadband.

Traditionally, PSCR’s work has typically involved researchers in PSCR’s lab or other NIST and federal partner laboratories. However, between now and 2022, we now have the capability of bringing many more partners and players into the mix. This will greatly expand the amount of research and number of experts that are focusing their time and attention on public safety’s communications needs so that we can highlight the gaps and focus a lot of our efforts during the next five or six years on filling those gaps.

JB: We often discuss how public safety broadband will enable first responders to make unprecedented use of data in real-time – for text, voice, images, and location services. For example, we imagine the possibility of firefighters’ location within a burning building mapped out on a 3D blueprint that an incident commander can view from a tablet in real time.

How will this R&D enabled by PSCR unlock this potential technology revolution for first responders?

DO: We named this entire effort around the $300 million the ‘Public Safety Innovation Accelerator program.’ The idea behind this is that we want to help public safety envision what the future looks like for them. Not two years or three years from now – but what does 10 years or 15 years look like for you? For example, what does it look like for you to really be able to have the type of location based services that you would have if you could have it any way you want?

We want to pull that future vision forward in the timeline by thoughtfully applying these research funds to push innovation in industry, academia, federal labs and labs across the country to quickly innovate around core areas so that public safety can take advantage of these technologies much sooner than they would otherwise.

JB: This grant program focuses on specific technology areas (mission critical voice; location based services; public safety analytics; communication demand modeling; research and prototyping platforms; and resilient systems). How did PSCR decide on these areas?

DO: We wanted to ensure we had a very well defined, strategic approach to how we were going to use these funds. It is really a once in a lifetime opportunity for us and for public safety to have this amount of R&D focused on their communications issues. We wanted to be very deliberate on how we approached it and have traceability on why we have chosen to do what we are doing.

We started back in 2013 with a large workshop having a number of people from public safety, industry and academia get together and talk about the core areas that, if we focused this money on it, would truly lead to a transformation in public safety’s capabilities for communications. The five areas that came out of that initial workshop are: 1) mission critical voice, 2) LMR to LTE, 3) location-based services, 4) public safety analytics, and 5) user interface and user experiences.

This first grant program really is looking at the lanes of location based serviced, mission critical voice and analytics. The additional areas that are in the grant – such as demand modeling, prototyping, and resilient systems - those are really underlying, cross-cutting needs that we have in our research that will help us in all of those five lanes.

JB: As mentioned, your mission is a public safety focused mission. How does this grant program encourage public safety participation?

DO: We feel it’s very important for anyone who applies to have a good understanding of public safety’s operational requirements. The entire grant program encourages anyone applying to partner with public safety and have them be part of their application. It is not a requirement across the board, but it is encouraged and certainly some of the scoring criteria will take into account an applicant’s understanding of public safety’s requirements.

However, in the analytics portion of the grant program - because it is so important for the grantees to get access to real public safety types of data - it is imperative that applicants partner with a public safety agency. In this case, for the analytics section, it is a requirement that an applicant partner with public safety.

JB: This is an exciting opportunity for PSCR to drive innovation for public safety communications. We’re looking forward to seeing the outcomes. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us.

DO: This is a very exciting opportunity for PSCR and we hope it ends up having large payouts for public safety. We are looking forward to working with public safety, FirstNet, industry, and the academic community over the next five to six years to see this executed.

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