Army in Austin: How Futures Command changed city in first year, and what’s to come


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Army Futures Command celebrates its first full year in the city Monday, hosting a public ceremony to thank Austin for welcoming the innovative military branch to the tech scene.

Monday’s event starts at 4 p.m. at the Long Center with live music, a drill team performance, a parachute demonstration from the Army’s famous Golden Knights and a speech from AFC Commanding Gen. Mike Murray.

It comes as the tech-focused, startup-like branch ramps up its presence in the area.

More than 100 people now work in AFC’s headquarters; another 30 work at the Army Applications Laboratory, the part of the command that works out of the downtown tech incubator Capital Factory. The Army expects to hire 500 total employees.

“The Army cannot be segregated from the rest of the high tech community, not anymore,” said Command Innovation Officer Jay Harrison. “That’s just not the way high tech works today in the world. We need to be part of the broader ecosystem, part of the broader conversation.”

The goal of the Army Applications Lab is to connect military leaders with tech entrepreneurs to bring non-Army solutions to Army problems.

“We need commercial investors to be putting money into the things that the Army needs to support our mission,” Harrison said. “So we’re specifically targeting companies that may be able to support our needs, but also have a business idea for how that product can maybe go over into the commercial marketplace to support, let’s say, warehouse operations in Amazon.”

In that way, the first year in Austin has seen AFC function as both a venture capitalist and tech incubator.

Currently the command is working on four projects with tech companies, including two based in Austin. AFC leaders wouldn’t talk too many specifics, but KXAN has reported on the types of companies the Army wants to work with.

Valkyrie, an artificial intelligence company in east Austin, was excited about the prospect of working with the innovation branch as crew finished work on the applications lab earlier this year.

And Senseye already has a government contract to provide flight simulation software that track how Air Force pilots’ eyes react to training.

As AFC moves into its second year of recruiting local tech talent, it’s expanding the scope of ideas it wants to hear to address 15 new focus areas.

“We’re just at the crawl stage right now,” said Porter Orr, director of the Army Capabilities Accelerator program, a subset of the lab, “and hopefully by the end of the next year we’re going to be at the full sprint stage.”

The next project kicks off Thursday, Orr said. The Army wants to recruit people and companies with experience in robotics and automation to revamp systems used to re-supply troops in the field.

“Essentially, that process hasn’t really changed for the last 100 years, so if you were a soldier in World War I you’d probably recognize what the Army is doing right now,” he said. The Army would like to make the system autonomous, and Thursday will hold a meet-and-greet to connect with people around Austin who can help.

After that, future projects include weapons upgrades, satellite positioning systems, and augmented reality uses for planning and battlefield uses.

Perhaps more important than the projects through the first year, though, is promoting the Army’s mission in Austin, Harrison said.

AFC held a hackathon last fall to that end, and the Army Applications Lab space on the 8th floor of the Omni Hotel downtown is open for entrepreneurs.

“We get the free radicals roaming through our offices here at Capital Factory on a regular basis,” Harrison said. “People are curious. They want to know what the Army’s all about, what we’re doing in Austin, how they can work with us.”

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