USAF’s 2019 Spark Tank Winner, Spurring Innovation, AFWERX Update


Lt. Col. Dave Harden, USAF, the chief operating officer of AFWERX, the US Air Force’s innovation cell and Spark Tank co-founder; Lauren Knausenberger, the Air Force’s director of cyberspace innovation and Spark Tank director and co-founder; and 2019 Spark Tank winner Master Sgt. Jonathan Maas of the 52nd Civil Engineering Squadron at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, discuss the competition, the winning proposal to save time and money, driving innovation and an AFWERX update with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian. The interview was conducted at the Air Force Association’s 2019 Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando where our coverage was sponsored by Leonardo DRS and L3 Technologies.

Vago Muradian:  Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report.  I’m Vago Muradian here in Orlando, Florida covering the Air Force Association’s Annual Air Warfare Symposium, the number one winter meeting of the United States Air Force’s annual winter gathering of its leadership from around the world.  Industry executives, thought leaders, media and more down here in Florida.  Our coverage here is sponsored by Leonardo DRS and L3 Technologies.

And every year one of the highlights of this conference or at least over the last two years has been the Spark Tank competition for innovation.  I want to go down the row.  Dave Harden, Colonel in the United States Air Force is the CEO and the founder of AFWERX, the innovative lab down in Austin where you guys are working on innovative and thoughtful solutions.  Lauren Knausenberger, who is the Spark Tank Director of this awesome Air Force-wide competition to get six folks to this moment.  And then John Maas, who is a Master Sergeant in the United States Air Force who is the winner from the 52ndCivil Engineering Squadron in sunny Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany.  I’m sorry, any base that’s just universally known as Spang is pretty cool, especially because it was an old Luftwaffe base, but let’s not get into some of the historical details.

Let’s talk, Lauren, about this year’s competition.  None other than Mark Cuban.  You had a real Shark Tanker here, an entrepreneur.  He knocked it out with General Wilson, the Vice Chief and we talked about that conversation a little bit.

Talk to us about this year’s competition, how this year’s competition is different from last year’s, and the six competitors.

Lauren Knausenberger:  I didn’t think that it could have gotten any more exciting than last year, but we really did raise the bar.  Just the energy in the room was awesome.  The audience was so engaged.  Everyone was rooting for these airmen and they just nailed it.  They did such a fabulous job.

We also did have Mark Cuban and George Steinbrenner IV on stage.  Higher profile judges made it even more exciting for the teams and also had some really interesting feedback from both of them.  With Mark pushing back in very candid ways, as only Mark can do, and with George just being so supportive, but coming up with really insightful advice.  And of course the Secretary, Chief and the Chief Master Sergeant did an incredible job.

So what we did differently this year was we actually had folks submit their ideas on an ideation platform.  So it was a lot easier to submit.  We had over 300 submissions, which was wild.  Last year we had about 80, I want to say.  And it was just more transparent.

So if you put forward an idea, everyone can see your idea, everyone can help you make it better and create it over time, but you can also be automatically matched with folks that have the same idea.  So we had a couple of people say hey, here’s the problem with your idea.  We’re actually doing that at our base.  We’ve already solved that problem.  Come partner with us, let’s do this together.  So that’s awesome, and that’s something that we solved without even needing to get on-stage and do it.  So that was exciting.

As far as the pitches themselves, we had the M-1 Cargo Parachute Failsafe, that one was a lot of fun, a little poke at a more expensive solution from an Army Lab that the Air Force leaders were —

Mr. Muradian:  No good natured rivalry there at all.

Ms. Knausenberger:  None at all.  I also loved the Vice Chief’s question to Mark Cuban, hey, Army or Air Force?  Mark of course responded, hey, I thought you were going to ask me smart questions.  But that one really, for about a dollar he 3D printed a part that will help us go from 2 percent failure rate to 0 percent failure rate and eliminate over a million dollars’ worth of cargo destruction in a year when a parachute prematurely goes.

We also had John with his amazing chemical detector.  The crazy thing about that is — so we have chemical detectors at bases and they have to change their batteries every 12 hours, and that is an airman’s job. And so thank goodness for John, who saw that this was crazy and developed a renewable energy solution that he can tell you more about.

We also had Lexi which is a weather app from a Cadet at USAFA who basically said look, it’s crazy that I’m spending 45 minutes getting hundreds of different data points from different sources and manually pulling this together.  So there’s an app for that now called Lexi.

On one hand, we’ve heard the story before, get the data, get it to a [middle place] but when you’re trying to fly a mission you have to act fast.  You can’t wait 45 minutes for a weather report.  These guys are taking off one way or another and hopefully they have the right information.

We also had an adaptive basing project which is kind of like a fighter pit crew in a box.  So instead of a crew of 50 people taking a day to get a jet off the ground, these guys can do it in about 45 minutes with seven folks.  Everything you need in a trailer.

And there was MQ-9 where they basically, apparently when we test signals on an MQ-9 we literally pull an engine out around a runway with a truck to test if the signal is dead. So we were joking that this is “Can you hear me now?” in a tactical case.  So instead of towing an MQ-9, you know, it’s still pretty big, still maybe that size, and still 200 pounds.  But their plan is to move it down to the size of a laptop.

I think I’m missing one.  IRS. That one, it’s a respirator mask and so there are a lot of respirator masks.  You can breathe underwater and you can communicate.  You can communicate from an airplane.  But we don’t have solutions for communicating inside a gas tank.  A lot of that is because it generates a spark, a spark in a gas tank is not a great thing.  So their ask was to prototype and to change some of the masks to accommodate that.

Mr. Muradian:  Wow.  Each one of these ideas is so good.  You could say that each one in their own right should be a winner, but John, you nailed it.  So walk us through first the problem.  Talk to us about the detector, how many batteries the detector costs, how often airmen have to go and change batteries.  Because I don’t think anybody joined the United States Air Force to be almost a professional battery changer.

Ms. Knausenberger:  And John, I think you need to show us the trophy.  That’s —

Colonel Dave Harden:  3D printed, by the way.

Mr. Muradian:  And was this done by AFWERX actually?

Colonel Harden:  Yes.

Mr. Muradian:  Well done, Dave.

John, tell us about the problem, tell us about how you came up with the solution, what was your inspiration moment, and really, the solution.  And sort of the cost tradeoff, right?  Like why you’re actually spending a little bit more money but actually saving money.

Master Sergeant John Maas:  One of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s priorities was to get back to readiness.  So bases were starting to do exercises again to be able to survive and operate in contested environments.  What we started seeing is that airmen were having to change out batteries of these Joint Chemical Agent Detectors and it was just killing them manpower wise, and it was costing us a lot of money.

So over a year time frame in an installation airmen could spend 2,900 man hours and up to 116,800 AA batteries for every year of operation.  So that made me think of this solution.  It’s a renewable energy power supply for that detector, and that allows them to run that detector 24×7 with very minimal user maintenance.

Mr. Muradian:  And you were changing those batteries every 12 hours?

Master Sergeant Maas:  Every 12 hours.  We had to have two two-man teams go out and change out 40 detectors.

Mr. Muradian:  Talk to us about the solution that you have.  Because they’re solar, there’s a battery.  Talk to us about run time.  Because it’s sort of like after every patrol everybody changes out the batteries because you want your NBGs, so it doesn’t really matter how depleted they are, you’re automatically changing them to make sure that you’re fresh.  So there’s a reason behind it, there’s method to the madness.  That having been said, talk to us about how your system changes that dynamic entirely.

Master Sergeant Maas:  We added four levels of redundancy to this so airmen have some options now.  If they have commercial power they can plug this into commercial power.  If we lose commercial power after an attack then the solar panels will continue to recharge that internal battery pack that we have.  And if we have no sun, like we do in Germany in the winter time, we’ll still get another 60 hours of run time out of our renewable energy power supply.  If that dies, we still have an initial 12 hours within the internal battery pack of the detector.

So really what we’re doing is we’re giving airmen options to be able to keep those detectors running.

Mr. Muradian:  What’s the form/fit factor?  And also more importantly, the cost of this that makes it such an attractive proposition, as you look at the whole balance.  Because you also have to factor in airmen’s time as well.

Master Sergeant Maas:  We were able to get this thing to less than 14 pounds, and hopefully working with AFWERX and the Spark Tank program, we can actually develop solutions that allow us to make that even smaller, lighter, more agile so that we can support combat operations.

Mr. Muradian:  Let me come to you, Dave.  In AFWERX, talk to us about how you guys are now — the idea is to get the idea and then give the idea to you and then actually try to make that transformation. General Harris who controls all the money, Lieutenant General, the least popular person here.  Everybody wanted to talk to the —

Ms. Knausenberger: The most popular.

Mr. Muradian:  I was saying the absolute most popular person here, right?  That was a total joke.  Everybody wants money from him.

But talk to us a little bit about how you guys are going to take this idea, shepherd it and get that out to the force, because that’s the whole idea behind the competition.

Colonel Harden:  Absolutely.  It’s exciting.  If you saw the video we were playing from Bach who was the winner last year, he got to recreate his experience, and it’s amazing.  So from last year’s Spark Tank winner to by the end of FY19, we’re literally going to have his idea prototyped, modified, tested and rolled out to 440 aircraft in the fleet.  That’s from idea to implementation, which is unheard of.

Mr. Muradian:  And let me just say, that was a master sergeant who was a KC-135 boom operator, and for the instructors, they have to lay on the bare skin of the airplane and that’s very, very cold, drinks freeze, so he was looking at a heated cushion pad because there were disability costs that were associated with folks in that sort of contorted position as they were training a new boom operator.

Colonel Harden:  Absolutely.  Thanks for giving the recap for that.  That’s helpful.

So now with our new winner we’ll go through a similar process.  It’s all about learning, iterating, getting after it.  So we’ll start with the larger package, hey, what works, what doesn’t.  We’ll bring them into AFWERX Vegas, they can go to the hub there, get with experts, SMEs, and then we’ll say hey, now we have something that works.  Let’s test it at a few bases.  Okay, now how do we make it smaller?  We’ll start to work with the SPOS, we’ll get with the acquisition community and figure out how to lay this out and transition it to the warfighter.

Mr. Muradian:  One of the things, Dave, that you talked about is the necessity to have sort of honest conversations, honest discussion within the service, with its acquisition, with its suppliers.  What are the kinds of conversations that have to happen for us to cross some of these innovative rubicons?  Everybody all the time is talking about innovation, but when you look at the needle, the needle is not moving as much as some people would like, given General Stafford, the legendary astronaut, Apollo 10 Commander was here.  And he noted like how much was accomplished in a short period of time in a focused way.  We put a man on the moon in eight years.  We’re now satisfying ourselves sometimes on some programs and we think it’s going fast, and the context of something like that is going painfully slow.

Colonel Harden:  That’s great insight.

We have a real opportunity here, and there are cultural barriers.  We see it.  And the beautiful thing about Spark Tank is the honest conversations that we have on stage. We had it last year.  We had it this year.  So they hear the SECAF say who’s the SPO?  Right?  I want to talk to him and get this done.  Hey, talk to my acquisition folks.  Let’s go over this hurdle.  Defense contractors, you need to get on board and help the Air Force, not just making money but actually contributing to our warfighter when we have needs like this. If we can’t plug into your system, figure out how to plug into your system.

But most importantly, the most important thing, Vago, is that we have honest conversations about making sure that there is risk in saying no.  And all of a sudden, on stage, there’s risk in saying no. Right?  Because if someone in the organization before they got promoted, I’m not going to take any risk, right?  I’m not going to do that project.  I have all these rule sets.  I’m just not going to do it.  They get promoted, there’s no risk of failure.  But that’s not going to work anymore and we’re seeing that on stage. Now people are getting called out for saying no.

So now the lawyer, the acquisition community, everybody else has to take a second thought and say hmm, do I have to get to yes?  Do I have to figure out another way?  And when we start to change that decision matrix we start to get after innovation.

Ms. Knausenberger:  And I’ll add that this year we almost didn’t have to call people out as much. People were ready to bring their business card to the stage.  There’s something in your way.  All right. We had Will Roper, our Chief of Acquisition come up to the stage, here you go.  The test community.  It was outstanding.

Mr. Muradian:  And John, from your standpoint, how rewarding was this?  Do you feel that when there are great ideas they do percolate to the top?  Is this kind of an encouraging thing from the standpoint of a smart airman from Pandora, Ohio who came up with a game-changing idea?

Master Sergeant Maas:Absolutely.  I was always the type of person where like you said, there’s cultural issues where airmen may feel like they’re limited in being able to express the ideas that they have.  And this experience has changed my mind with that.  Now I know that hey, if I’ve got something I can bring it to my supervisor, I can bring it to my commander, and they’re going to listen.

Mr. Muradian:  Did you guys like the message that Mark Cuban delivered, which is don’t be afraid of failure, just go out there and do it.  That everybody has a great idea but at some point they stop, and it’s the people who actually say like hey, this is a great idea, let me actualize it. Does that need to be a broader mantra?

Ms. Knausenberger:I think that the good news is over the past year the dialogue in the Air Force has shifted. And we say this.  Not everyone understands fully what it means yet.  But the dialogue is changing and we do truly believe that.

Colonel Harden:Everyone says fail forward, but they don’t understand what failure means.  Failure means that sometimes things go wrong and then the leaders have to be okay with that.  We’re still not there yet.  Everyone wants 100 percent success, and if it doesn’t succeed, then you failed.  That’s not the answer.

So we have to teach them about what failure means, and it’s actually not failure, it’s learnings.  So what we try to do and what we’ve done in a lot of our projects is say you know what? Even though this AI algorithm might not work, guess what?  We collected all of our data and we did it for a million dollars, and that would have been ten million dollars if we’d contracted it.  We got a win.  We learned something.  We were actually more cost-effective than if we had never tried this project at all.

So when you start to capture what the wins are and what the learnings are, then you really can’t fail by just moving forward.

Mr. Muradian:  Guys, I want to thank all of you.  Colonel Dave Harden who is the Chief Operating Officer of AFWERX.  And I said earlier, Austin.  Austin is one of the hubs.  He’s at the Pentagon.  Lauren Knausenberger who is the Spark Tank Director, but your full time job is the Director of Innovation at Air Force Cyberspace.  Thank you, very much.  And John Maas, Master Sergeant in the United States Air Force from the 52ndCivil Engineering Squadron in Spangdahlem Air Base who is this year’s 2019 Spark Tank Winner for a brilliant idea that’s I’m sure popular with every airman on every base who has to make sure a chemical detector is fed by batteries. Guys, thanks very, very much.  I’m already looking forward to the 2020 Spark Tank.

Ms. Knausenberger:  Appreciate it.

Colonel Harden:  Thanks so much.


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