AFRL Commander’s Challenge: competition drives spirit of innovation

REDSTONE ARSENAL, Alabama – Teams from Air Force Materiel Command bases around the country came together to answer the Air Force Research Laboratory Commander’s Challenge–precision, austere resupply. Move 50 pounds of supplies 30 miles and deliver them to a 20 X 20 foot drop zone.

“So, the idea is you’re 30 miles away … you’re in a combat zone, we’ve got people behind enemy lines outside of a forward operating base, and we need to get them supplies before we can get them support,” explained Capt. John P.K. Walton, this year’s AFRL Commander’s Challenge program officer.The contestants were given six months and a small budget to solve the problem.

Teams came up with a variety of hardware—remotely controlled helicopters and ultralights, autonomous vehicles and gliders, and supply canisters that use the principle of autorotation to slow their descent.

Software was developed. Apps were written from scratch to send, receive and track supply requests.

Four teams gathered at the Army’s Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, February 26, for a week-long fly-off to see whose concept would come out on top. However, the new hardware, software and procedures were secondary in the goals of the challenge.

“By far, the more important return on investment is all of you,” Maj. Gen. William T. Cooley, AFRL commander, told the participants at the awards banquet March 2, marking the end of the fly-off.

In an earlier interview, Cooley explained that the challenge is specifically set up for the junior work force.

“The investment we make is developing these future leaders, technologists, contracting officers and engineers from across the workforce,” Cooley said. “This is a formative experience for many of them to really have an opportunity to make a difference and rise to a challenge in a competitive environment.”

Veena Meer, Team Hanscom team lead, says the experience has changed her.

“It challenged each one of us personally and professionally,” Meer said. “Just from the teamwork perspective, working together, having differences of opinion—strong differences of opinion—especially towards the end. Because we worked so hard on this, we were all so invested in it that, when it came time to decide…what to include in the demo, there were strong opinions.”

“Being able to come back in the next day and look at each other, even though we had been clashing the day before and be, like, ‘Okay, let me hear your idea and you hear mine. Let’s see how we can work together to make this happen’.”

While Meer, and other participants, talk of the teamwork they’ve learned, Walton points to the understanding they gain of the acquisition system.

“The overarching goal for this is to get them that start-to-finish experience with the acquisition cycle,” Walton said. “They go from an idea, whiteboard design to a demo in six months. And, they do it with a very short schedule and a very small budget.”

This gives the individuals a better understanding of the roles others play in the process.

“So, if they are a program manager they, at their core, understand what an engineer goes through to make it happen, what the operator goes through to make it happen,” Walton said. “The operators now understand what they have to do to get the message of their needs up the chain, who’s got to be involved.”

All this development of team-working skills and acquisition knowledge gained does not mean there was not some pretty impressive innovation going on.

“I am always amazed at the innovation and the capability that we see from our work force when we take the shackles off and give them the opportunities to apply their talents, their education, their skills, their practical insights, and bring their enthusiasm to make a difference,” Cooley said.

Cooley points out that there is an Air Force-wide emphasis on innovation.

“The Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff have identified their top-five priorities and one of those is drive innovation,” he said. “I think that this is an exceptional example of innovation at work.”

Cooley cited the work of Senior Airman Rob Dome, a precision measurement equipment laboratory technician at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, as an example.

“I was particularly impressed with a Senior Airman who worked in PMEL and nearly single-handedly built a helicopter from commercially available parts.” Cooley said of Dome. “Kudos to the leadership who gave him the opportunity–he has tremendous talent and capability to bring to the Air Force and this Commander’s Challenge gave him an opportunity to really shine.”

Domes and Team Eglin were not alone in their innovation.

“Every team came up with something I wouldn’t have thought of,” Walton said. “We intentionally say ‘I don’t want my ideas—I have my ideas—I want your ideas,’” he added.

Team Kirtland developed a small, autonomous vehicle designed to be dropped near the drop zone—for the purpose of the demonstration, by an unmanned ultralight aircraft—that makes its own way to preprogrammed GPS coordinates carrying supplies and its own remote control so it can be used by the warfighters after they’ve retrieved the supplies.

Team Hanscom came up with an autonomous glider that can be dropped from other aircraft. Meer explained the purpose of the glider is to provide stealth.

“As the aircraft is going through the vicinity of where the warfighter needs the supplies, it would release the glider,” Meer explained. “The noisy, large vehicle continues on its preplanned mission while this glider autonomously glides quietly, stealthily.”

Team Hanscom matched their new glider with an application they designed for use on Nett Warrior, an operating system used by the U.S. military in the field on hand-held devices. The app lets a warfighter order supplies and keep track of the order while it is on route to them.

Team Bug 2, the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base team, also designed an application which they billed as “agnostic across delivery platforms.”

“With our app, we have the capability to, basically, create a delivery vehicle catalog per base,” said Erin Sowers, Team Bug 2 lead. “So, whatever they have readily available, whether that be a manned vehicle or an unmanned vehicle, you can select what you are going to use and then be able to communicate that to the warfighter or civilian and say ‘your materiel is coming in this media and we want you to be on the lookout for it’”.

The app designer team member, 1st Lt. Michael Ledford, National Air and Space Intelligence Center, was also singled out by Cooley for praise.

Ledford developed the software after taking a course in application design. It allows a soldier to order supplies while letting him know if his request exceeds the available vehicle payloads. It keeps the warfighter informed on the status of the order and its exact location while it is enroute. It also lets the requester send updated information should he have to move or the situation changes.

Team Eglin, the winning team, joined their remote-controlled helicopter with a patent-pending supply canister that has its own set of blades that use autorotation to slow the canister in its descent.

All of these programs proceeded from brainstorm to demonstration in a six-month time frame on a limited budget.

Hard work was key.

“The part I really didn’t expect was how challenging it would be and how difficult it was,” Meer, the Team Hanscom lead, said. “All of us agreed that we worked so much harder during our workdays, and even on weekends and evenings, during these six months than we ever have in a normal program office back at our home Air Force job.”

Being an AFRL Commander’s Challenge team member is its own full-time job.

“This was, basically, a reassignment for six months from your home office and they had to surrender you for that time without any contact,” Sowers said. “They were able, maybe, to send emails or something, but it was highly encouraged that you pull away, as much as possible, from your home office so you could focus entirely on this challenge.”

At the banquet marking the end of the commander’s challenge Cooley had one last request of the contestants as they return to their home commands and offices.

“All of you have just gone through this six-month experience,” Cooley said. “I ask you, I beg you, to please take this with you and help move the needle and make a difference with respect to our Air Force, bringing innovation and how we can do things differently.”