SOF - Special Operations

What is AFWERX, the USAF’s new cultivator of innovation?

6th September 2019 - 16:00 GMT | by The Shephard News Team in London

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The US Air Force's new AFWERX technology accelerator is now seeing several of its projects mature into viable prototypes that are being passed over for operational testing.

The service established AFWERX in 2017, to develop effective solutions to the various challenges facing the service through partnerships with private sector business entities and by adopting technology start-up strategies.

Shephard spoke to Brian 'Beam' Maue, the AFWERX mission lead, to find out more about the progress of the AFWERX programme, which was announced by USAF secretary Heather Wilson only two years ago.

Maue explained that AFWERX had 'started with a classic innovation hub approach where people could come together and perform design thinking or lean startup type methods through facilitation'. 

'And it has now expanded into about 12 different capabilities that has created a system that is unique from what we're used to seeing within the Department of Defense, in that we have not only innovation supply capabilities, we're able to supply facilitation,' Maue said.

On how AFWERX fosters innovation with the USAF, Maue said that AFWERX had various different methods that they pursued with regard to innovation demands.

'The first one is a national level event that we do once a year called Spark Tank. It looks very similar to a Shark Tank item. We do a call to the air force and we say “What are your great ideas?” And it proceeds its way up through various headquarters, and it makes its way to the Pentagon, and ultimately in February we have six finalists who stand in front of our chief of staff and secretary of the air force.’

AFWERX announced the second winner of its Spark Tank competition in February 2019. The competition, which is the culminating event of the crowdsourcing platform IdeaScale, brings forward new ideas to top military officials including bringing integrated communication to respirators and additions to airdrop mechanisms to improve their reliability.

‘Another way that we have approached innovation at the base level is that we have base level innovation offices, and this is very important with regard to the effort philosophy in that we did not request that say “you ought” or “you shall have an innovation office at all of your 200 bases”. Instead we said “we’ve got one or two here”, starting in California, and they seem to like what they’re doing,' Maue said.

‘And so we have grown from an initial Spark cell to 44 different bases now having innovation offices, not because it was demanded of them by senior leaders, but because it’s that authentic growth that we see a value adding function here, we want to adopt that practice.’

AFWERX currently has three physical innovation hubs, in Washington DC, Austin and near Las Vegas. The Vegas location is the largest of the three, although Maue said that they all ‘bring their own unique string to the overall ecosystem’.

With the Pentagon continuing to explore multi-domain operations (MDOs), AFWERX is working to provide solutions to the MDO problem sets. 

‘In April we held a challenge workshop where we asked for, in an unclassified setting out in Las Vegas, with over 100 attendees, some from the army, some from the navy, there were a few international services there as well. And along with industry academics researchers who gave some great discussions about AI, some talking about data, some talking about the MDO problem. We worked together over the course of two days to develop this series of statements in April. These statements were then placed on the AFWERX website,' Maue explained.

‘As a result of putting out that challenge, we received 317 submissions. We had a series of judges who looked at the submissions and then selected what appeared to be the top 100. They came out and had exhibitor tables in July. And from there we picked a list of the top 30 finalists that we want to see advanced. We’re looking at 19 to 21 November to have deeper presentations.’

Shephard also spoke to Maue about what successes AFWERX has had so far. Maue told said that ‘typically our timeframe is we would like to see something happen in around 18 months, so we’re watching some of these origin stories come to their conclusion.’ 

One of the main successes to date came from the winner of the first Spark Tank: MSG Bartek Bachleda. His creation was a new platform for the boom operators of KC-135 Stratotankers, intended to dramatically reduce injuries – in particular back and neck issues. 

His design, after small tweaks, is currently undergoing a second round of testing. Maue said that ‘it’s quite possible that by the end of the year, start of next year, these prototype platforms will be adopted within the KC-135.’

AFWERX has also been working to redesign and replace the existing fixed wing helmet used by pilots and aircrew to develop an alternative that is lightweight and comfortable, with improved noise protection and better thermal management.

Maue said three "very solid" prototypes had been selected with a fourth under investigation, and were now under testing to go into the active duty.

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