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First Responder UAS Triple Challenge 3.2: Lifelink - UAS Data Relay

Enhancing first responder operations by building a UAS to support broadband in a degraded cellular service area

National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST)

Total Cash Prizes Offered: $260,000
Type of Challenge: Technology demonstration and hardware
Partner Agencies | Federal: First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet the Authority)
Partner Agencies | Non-federal: FIRSTNET Built with AT&T
Submission Start: 08/02/2021 09:00 AM ET
Submission End: 09/30/2021 09:00 PM ET


Join us for this exciting drone (aka unmanned aircraft system or UAS) prize competition using your ingenuity and hardware build expertise to create a concept for a drone prototype. The result of the First Responder UAS Triple Challenge 3.2 “LifeLink” will support the public safety community and its stakeholders.

The purpose of this Challenge is to advance UAS technologies by building a UAS solution designed to support continuous broadband communications between first responders in the field. Specifically, PSCR is investigating options to enable state and local first responders the ability to continuously deliver Internet Protocol (IP) based data via a UAS. The goal of this challenge is for Contestants to design, build, and fly a complete UAS solution that provides continuous IP connectivity to first responders dispersed in a thick forested area with degraded cellular coverage.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) Division is hosting this 3-stage challenge, with prize awards up to $260,000 for the top designs. There are no fees or qualifications needed to enter the first stage. The most outstanding Stage 1 conceptual designs will be eligible to participate in the remaining stages of the competition see Official Rules.

You can make a difference! Continue reading to learn about challenge stages and details. To enter Stage 1, submit your entry by September 30, 2021. For entry as a Walk-on for Stage 2, submit your entry by May 13, 2022. Entries can be submitted through the Contestant Portal on the Challenge website at

Summary of Important Dates

  • August 2, 2021: Lifelink Challenge is open for proposal submissions through challenge website; begin Stage 1
  • September 30, 2021: Lifelink Challenge open for proposal submissions through challenge website; begin Stage 1
  • October 29, 2021: Stage 1 Winners Announced; begin Stage 2
  • January 17, 2022: Stage 2 Check-in Review conducted with eligible Stage 2 Contestants
  • January 24, 2022: Stage 2 Check-in Review Winners Announced
  • April 15, 2022: Walk-on submissions open
  • May 13, 2022: Stage 2 Video Evaluation submissions due; Walk-on submissions due
  • May 20, 2022: Stage 2 and Walk-on Winners Announced; begin Stage 3
  • June 22-24, 2022: Live Test & Evaluation (dates may change based on weather delays)
  • June 30, 2022: Stage 3 Final Winners announced

NOTE: NIST reserves the right to revise the dates at any time.


NIST PSCR established the Innovation Accelerator to spearhead the research that supports the development and deployment of the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN). PSCR’s Open Innovation team engages public safety entities, government, academia, and industry to identify innovation opportunities and foster technology advancements for public safety communications through prize competitions and challenges.

Operational Use Case

The number of operational use cases for providing data to first responders in a cellular denied environment is large; however, for the purpose of this contest, we will use a wildland fire scenario as our example. Picture yourself as a wildland firefighter in a remote region. There are multiple other wildland firefighter groups dispersed across a fireline as well as at an incident command post that has been set up away from your location. As time goes on, resources and assets involved in the operation are moving in and around the area. Additionally, the fire is advancing in an unknown direction. It is not entirely clear how the scene is changing from everyone’s perspective. For example, where are the groups of firefighters moving too, where is the current fireline, where are strategic assets such as trucks and heavy machinery, what are the current orders from incident command, etc. A UAS mounted with a broadband transceiver could relay this information between all groups in the field and to the incident command post providing critical situational awareness to everyone involved.

This real-time communications system would provide more than just voice communications. For example, the system could disseminate map information, asset location information, pictures, video, etc. What sort of complete system (UAS & transceiver) could you design to allow for continuous data communications between groups of first responders during a wildland fire? An example could be a UAS equipped with a Wi-Fi system that has multiple antenna beams pointing towards each firefighter group. The UAS must have the ability to maintain communications to each first responder group in the field for as long as possible. Additionally, first responders may be moving in all directions from where the UAS is located, so ensuring that everyone is connected is a top priority.

There are several UAS design features that need to be considered in support of public safety agencies.

  • The system needs to be cost effective to fit a first responder’s budget.
  • The UAS needs to be easily deployable to operate in degraded launch areas at any time, so the capability of the UAS to have VTOL is necessary.
  • The UAS should be compact since space in a first responder vehicle is often limited.
  • The UAS should be easily pilotable.
  • The system should be able to communicate to all UEs in the area.
  • The system needs to support IP communication between the two end points.

UAS Design Specifications

UAS entered for the LifeLink Challenge will be subject to the requirements outlined in the Design Specifications. Click here for details.

PSCR is aware that various organizations may be developing drones with these or similar capabilities; however, these drones typically cost more than what a local public safety department might be able to afford. Additionally, they may not be practical due to the difficulty of transporting large equipment and/or the need for specialized training to operate it, both of which can be difficult for city/state agencies with limited staff and resources. Therefore, PSCR is hosting this 3-stage challenge to design, develop, and demonstrate drones with extended flight time and other capabilities that support first responders to help advance the research and push the boundaries of UAS technology for public safety.

Deliverables Due

Participants will be asked to:

  • Submit a concept paper using an online form, outlining the UAS knowledge, skills, capabilities and design approach for this challenge.
  • Create or purchase hardware necessary to build a prototype and implement the design approach outlined within the concept paper.
  • Produce a Test flight video demonstrating the UAS prototype capabilities and safety compliance.
  • Participate in a Live Competition, conducting flights in Starkville MS June 22 – 24, 2022.

USA Challenge Stages

Table providing overview of challenge stages. If you are having trouble reading this table, please see the Official Rules document linked in the Rules section of this listing for details.


Total Cash Prize Pool

Up to $260,000

Prize Breakdown

NIST Public Safety Communications Research program is hosting a 3-stage challenge, with development funds, travel, and prize awards as listed below:

  • Stage 1 (up to 15): $7,000 each, up to $105,000 total
  • Stage 2

    • Check-in Review (up to 10): $3,000 each, up to $30,000 total
    • Video Evaluation (up to 10): $5,000 each, up to $50,000 total in travel prize awards for Contestants invited to compete in Stage 3
  • Stage 3 (up to 4):

    • Best Performance: up to $70,000

      • 1st Place: $40,000
      • 2nd Place: $20,000
      • 3rd Place: $10,000
    • First Responders Choice award: up to $5,000

NOTE: This only describes prize awards; additional contestants may win an invitation to participate in challenge stages but not be eligible to receive prize awards. All Stage 3 Contestants are eligible to compete for all Stage 3 prizes


See the Official Rules for details on all aspects of the challenge.

Judging Criteria

Judging Panel

The submissions will be judged by a qualified panel of expert(s) selected by the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) at its sole discretion. The panel consists of U.S. Department of Commerce, NIST and non-Department of Commerce, NIST experts and will judge the submissions according to the judging criteria in order to select winners. The decisions of the judges for the contest will be announced in accordance with the dates noted in the “Summary of Important Dates.”

Judging Criteria

Stage 1 Criteria

See the Official Rules for details on all aspects of the challenge. NIST makes an independent assessment of each Concept Paper based on the evaluation criteria. NIST will review each Contestant entry in the Solution Description. A submission that fails to meet the compliance criteria will be disqualified and will be ineligible to compete in this stage. Submissions that pass the initial compliance review will be evaluated and scored by a panel of judges. NIST makes an independent assessment of each concept paper based on the scoring criteria outlined below. Do not include sensitive materials in the concept paper, for example personally identifiable information such as social security numbers or business sensitive information, tax id numbers, etc.

Stage 1 judging criteria. If you are having trouble reading this table, please see the Official Rules document linked in the Rules section of this listing for details.

Concept Papers will be evaluated based on the Scoring Criteria above. The specific scores will not be released publicly or provided to the Contestant. Up to 15 Contestants will be awarded prize awards of $7,000 each and receive an invitation to Stage 2: Video Test & Safety Evaluation. Winners shall provide proof of UAS insurance or demonstrate financial responsibility prior to receiving the Stage 1 prize award.

See Official Rules for judging criteria associated with all other Stages of the contest.

How to Enter

Point of Contact

Have feedback or questions about this challenge? Send the challenge manager an email