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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 61· No. 5 > Small Business Innovation Research Program

March/April 1998
Vol. 61· No. 5

Small Business Innovation Research Program

by Charles W. Niessner

The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program was established in 1982 by the Small Business Innovation Development Act (Public Law 97-219). This program is the primary vehicle through which the federal government funds research and development (R&D) projects at small technology companies. The program's purposes, as set forth in the act, are to:

  • Stimulate small business innovation.
  • Use small businesses to meet federal R&D needs.
  • Foster and encourage participation in technological innovation by minority and disadvantaged persons.
  • Increase private sector commercialization of innovations derived from federal R&D.

Retroreflectivity data collection vans.

The 1982 act required each of the 11 federal agencies with extramural R&D budgets in excess of $100 million per year to allocate a small percentage of that budget to fund an SBIR program. The percentage allocation was phased in to 1.25 percent by fiscal year 1987.

In 1992, with the passage of the Small Business Research and Development Enhancement Act (Public Law 102-564), Congress significantly expanded the SBIR Program and sharpened the program's emphasis on private sector commercialization. The 1992 act boosted the SBIR percentage allocation from 1.25 percent in fiscal year (FY) 1992 to 1.5 percent in FY 1993 and FY 1994, to 2 percent in FY 1995 and FY 1996, and to 2.5 percent in FY 1997 and thereafter.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the other modal administrations within the Department of Transportation (DOT) participate in the SBIR Program. DOT's SBIR Program is coordinated by the Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA) at the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, Mass. Joseph Henebury is the director of DOT's SBIR Program.

The SBIR Process

The SBIR Program in DOT is a competitive contract award process with three phases. Phase I is the conduct of feasibility-related experimental or theoretical research. The maximum value of an award is $100,000; however, each agency may set lower values. The period of performance for these research studies may be up to six months. The primary bases for the award are the scientific and technical merit of the proposal and its relevance to DOT requirements.

Phase II is the principal research or R&D effort. Only Phase I awardees are eligible to participate in Phase II. Phase II awards have a period of performance of approximately two years with a maximum dollar value of $750,000. Again, each agency has the prerogative to limit the dollar value to a lesser amount. FHWA currently sets its maximum award at $500,000.

Phase III is conducted by the small business with either federal or non-federal funds to pursue commercial applications of the research funded in Phases I and II. SBIR funds cannot be used for this phase.

Intelligent vehicle sensor.

Annually, each modal administration within DOT develops problem statements for the SBIR Program. In February, DOT distributes its solicitation for Phase I proposals. Proposals are due the first week in May, and they are evaluated by the technical office within FHWA that submitted the problem statement. The evaluations and recommendations for contract awards are forwarded to RSPA. Contract awards are usually made in September or October of each year.

Upon completion of the Phase I contract, the small business may submit a Phase II proposal. The Phase II proposal will be evaluated by the technical office, which makes a recommendation to RSPA on whether or not to award a contract. If the recommendation is favorable, RSPA will negotiate and award the contract.

The SBIR Program

Since 1983, FHWA's SBIR Program has steadily increased (with a few minor dips) in dollar value (see table 1) and the number of contracts awarded. This is the result of two occurrences - the increased percentage allocation for SBIR and the increase in the FHWA research budget. During the program's 15 years of existence, 90 Phase I and 51 Phase II contracts have been funded by FHWA.

Awards have been made in almost all areas of the highway research program: pavements; structures; safety; traffic; and, in recent years, intermodal studies. As with all research programs, some efforts have been more successful than others.

One of the first SBIR studies investigated combining permanently tied-back elements with soil nailing to enable the construction of retaining walls in soils and soft rock. Another early study involved the development of a radar traffic monitor to replace the loop detectors at signalized intersections. Later efforts were directed at the development of new coatings for steel bridges, measurement of the retroreflectivity of pavement markings, fiber-reinforced dowel bars for pavements, and the use of new materials for roadside safety hardware. More recently, the studies have been concerned with such topics as automated reduction of video-based data, use of the Geographical Information System (GIS) in transportation planning, comprehensive intermodal freight transportation visual database, and fatigue-crack detection using remote sensing.

Table 1 - SBIR Funding Levels

FISCAL YEAR FUNDING
1983 $96,600
1984 266,400
1985 547,000
1986 569,400
1987 641,200
1988 651,300
1989 752,413
1990 1,228,425
1991 1,058,587
1992 1,465,913
1993 2,481,575
1994 3,230,820
1995 4,305,880
1996 4,243,010
1997 6,054,775*
* Estimated amount based on estimated FY 1997 extramural R&D budget.

Results

In addition to developing products that the highway community can use, another objective of the SBIR Program is to provide to the private sector an opportunity to commercialize these products. The following randomly selected projects provide a cross section of the types of products that have been developed under the SBIR Program.

Improved equipment for the consolidation of concrete pavements. One of the early SBIR projects developed a retroreflectometer that uses the principle of retroreflection and a scanning laser beam to measure the retroreflectivity of lane markings. Retroreflectivity is vital, particularly at night, for effective pavement markings that aid efficient traffic flow, driving comfort, and highway safety. The retroreflectometer is mounted on the outside of a van, and entire sections of pavement markings can be evaluated as the vehicle travels at speeds of up to 88 kilometers per hour. A computer inside the vehicle collects, formats, stores, and outputs the data. The retroreflectivity data is available for analysis almost immediately after measurements are taken. This new technology gives highway officials a tool for the nonsubjective, repeatable measurement of retroreflectivity of pavement markings. The device is currently being promoted as part of a demonstration project by FHWA's Office of Technology Applications.

Another project developed improved equipment for the consolidation of concrete pavements. This equipment relies on a harmonic combination of internal and surface vibrations and uses the resonance phenomenon to optimize the efficiency and consistency of consolidated concrete pavements. The system also allows for quantitative assessment of the consolidation conditions. This equipment produces stronger, less permeable, more uniform concrete pavements. It also requires less maintenance than current equipment, and as a result, the life-cycle cost of the new system is about 40 percent less. A major equipment manufacturer will produce the equipment, and it will be available on new pavers or can be purchased to retrofit existing pavers.

In monitoring vibrations in highway structures, it is desirable to collect data from many points on the bridge. However, the sensors must be wired to a central location. This is not only costly, but it requires long cables, which are susceptible to interference that can degrade the data quality. A solution is to collect sensor data by radio. The system developed under this SBIR project offers the means to instrument a bridge with either strain gauges or accelerometers to assess structural performance. The key advantage is the elimination of cables, thereby drastically reducing the cost of such instrumentation.

The system consists of 10 remote modules - each capable of monitoring four data channels - and one base module connected to a portable computer. The technician can place the remote nodes right at the instrumentation site, and a telemetry relay is then established to a local base site. The system has undergone field trials at the Woodrow Wilson Bridge (I-95, the Capital Beltway, over the Potomac River south of Washington, D.C.) in March 1995 and again at a bridge site in New Mexico in November 1995.

The system is ideally suited to load-rate bridges based on measured data. The use of real data provides a more accurate load rating, but it is not usually done today because the cost of "wiring" a bridge is prohibitive. The system is also an excellent research tool.

Another SBIR project is an intelligent vehicle sensor using existing inductive loops. This processor applies advanced signal processing and neural network algorithms to a vehicle's inductive loop signal to determine vehicle classification, speed, an estimate of the vehicle length, headway, and percent of lane occupancy. This information provides traffic management centers (TMCs) with a greatly enhanced capability to monitor and control traffic on a near real-time basis, and it enables TMCs to implement significantly improved automated response systems for ramp meters, changeable message signs, and traffic signs. This information can also be used to support the development of valid design criteria for highway improvements and of a realistic maintenance schedule.

These are just four examples of the types of projects that have been funded under the SBIR Program. In the last 15 years, FHWA has funded 141 Phase I and II contracts at a total cost of almost $28 million. The total expenditure for the program is less than 10 percent of the federal funding for highway research, development, and technology activities in fiscal year 1997 alone.

The SBIR Program has been a benefit to the highway community and to the small businesses that have participated in it. New products have been developed and brought into the highway program. Small businesses have capitalized on their R&D efforts to produce marketable products.

Charles W. Niessner is a highway engineer in the Office of R&D Operations and Support. He is the FHWA coordinator for the SBIR Program. He has been with FHWA for almost 32 years. He has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering and a master's degree in engineering management both from Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pa.

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