AFWERX Refinery program accelerates Airman and Guardian initiatives
Editor’s note: This is part three of a three-part series about the AFWERX Refinery program. Part one provided general information and a basic introduction to the Refinery, and part two focused on how the Refinery addresses the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s Action Orders as well as the Secretary of the Air Force’s operational imperatives. Part three (below) highlights specific Refinery projects and success stories.
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) — The AFWERX Refinery program, an initiative of the AFWERX Spark division, is rapidly advancing Airman and Guardian projects that directly aid warfighters by hosting a four-to-six-week Accelerator program that targets grassroots innovation efforts within the Department of the Air Force, or DAF. Several Airmen said their projects benefited greatly from the program including Custom Facemasks for Fighter Pilots and Beyond, Laser Foreign Object Detection and Project ArcWater.
“All these Airmen are working on big projects that either save time, save money, increase quality of life or increase our capabilities – and a lot of times, it’s all four,” said Maj. Garrett Custons, branch chief of the AFWERX Spark division and founder of the Refinery.
The Refinery moves Airman and Guardian grassroots efforts from one stage of development to the next by connecting them with a curated selection of subject matter experts and stakeholders relevant to problem areas and prototypes. This might mean meeting with engineering and science experts from the research labs, attorneys, acquisition professionals, program offices, headquarters staff offices, mentors or senior decision makers. In this way, the Refinery makes available the resources, training and practices of both government prototyping, fielding and sustaining expertise and private industry accelerators.
For a project to enter the Refinery, it must be a grassroots project originated by Airmen and Guardians, and at the minimum viable product stage or later with a potential user pool larger than one unit or base. Projects must have the potential to either influence the institution or gain institutional adoption.
Custom Facemasks for Fighter Pilots and Beyond
For example, the Custom Facemasks for Fighter Pilots and Beyond initiative represents a success story as a Refinery project later picked up by the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Center for Rapid Innovation, or AFRL/CRI, part of AFRL’s Integrated Capabilities Directorate.
Lt. Col. Ryan Sheridan, a dental services officer with 10th Air Base Wing at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado, presented the DAF’s capability to produce custom oxygen face masks for pilots using computer-aided design as well as advanced 3D-imaging and printing technology. This potentially low-cost solution aims to provide pilots with the required fit, form and function without sacrificing comfort.
The project was a finalist in the Spark Tank competition in March 2022 before going through the Refinery’s cohort three in 2022. AFRL/CRI picked it up in May 2022.
Currently, three custom facemasks have been printed in three different materials. Sheridan recently met with AFRL/CRI, a patent attorney and some additional stakeholders to perform preliminary testing on the masks, and is working to produce additional masks by fall 2023.
Laser Foreign Object Detection (LFOD)
Another successful Refinery project, Laser Foreign Object Detection, or LFOD, originated at Royal Air Force Lakenheath with Tech. Sgts. Phillip Rubic and Kaleb Webster, and Master Sgt. Jacob Garcia. LFOD made it to the 2020 Spark Tank semifinals before Tesseract, the Air Force Logistics Innovation Office, connected it to the Refinery in September 2022, when the team participated in the Refinery’s fifth cohort.
LFOD is a commercial off-the-shelf system that mounts to almost any existing vehicle. Using profiling lasers, GPS and cameras, LFOD detects and locates foreign objects in real time.
This project is already making a huge impact, cutting an estimate of more than one hundred thousand dollars of DAF funding per year in foreign object debris, or FOD, damage to aircraft, as well as saving thousands of manhours spent on FOD walks on the flight line, preventing mission delays and allowing Airmen to focus on their primary mission, according to a LinkedIn post made by Tesseract.
Currently in use at RAF Lakenheath since August 2022, LFOD has led to the elimination of daily FOD walks for maintenance personnel, and seven units have been trained and qualified to use the tool for airfield pavement inspections, according to an official LinkedIn post from Tesseract.
“The interest and traction in the additional use case of pavement inspections was a direct result of conversations with diverse stakeholders while they were in D.C.,” said Maj. Loren Faire, Refinery lead and member of Morpheus, an innovation team under the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David W. Allvin. “Conversations turned to other applications, and they discovered another unmet need. This is a great example of why it’s important to get out of our stovepipes and engage with multiple viewpoints and communities.”
Faire has also received positive feedback from Air Force flight crews about the future implementation of this system.
“LFOD will directly translate to flight hours and mission capability if those saved man-hours are refocused to maintainers working on aircraft,” Faire said. “All aircrew I’ve talked to have been excited about the prospect of more flight hours and higher reliability aircraft as a result of LFOD; lots of ‘this is a no-brainer, this should be everywhere’ comments.”
Additionally, Garcia, a founder of the LFOD technology, credits the Refinery with the success of the project.
“The Refinery was able to guide our project and make connections that were not previously possible,” said Garcia, one of LFOD’s original developers, in response to a Refinery survey. “Through the vast network of innovators, we were able to cast a wide net that connected us to individuals and stakeholders we didn’t know we needed. Our projects were reinforced and catapulted with the power of experience our mentors and instructors provided. I am grateful for the opportunity our team was afforded by being a part of this cutting-edge program.”
A third project that went through the Refinery process is Project ArcWater, Spark Tank 2022 champion. Project ArcWater, developed by Senior Master Sgt. Brent Kenney, heavy repair superintendent, with the 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, offered two solutions: clean electrical power and pure drinking water. The project offers a simple, green, expedited way to save energy and provide clean drinking water by using solar fabric and extracting via atmospheric water harvesting or through environmental water harvesting.
Project ArcWater aims to support the Air Force’s Agile Combat Employment, or ACE, mission and contingencies worldwide via a small, agile package, thus avoiding transportation, logistics hurdles and associated costs.
Kenney explained the advantages of his project. A traditional three-day, 30-person ACE deployment team will typically cost about $40,000 in sustainment costs, which includes fuel and water. However, with Project ArcWater’s system, that same mission is reduced to about $600 for the same combat capability. If implemented throughout the entire Air Force, Project Arcwater is projected to save about $9 million annually, Kenney said.
Not only does this project address a dire need within the Air Force, Kenney added, but it can also serve a wide range of applications for the civilian world, including humanitarian aid and disaster response.
For example, Project ArcWater underwent stress-testing in 2022 at an English language summer camp in Poland, providing water and electricity to 75 Polish and Ukrainian refugee children plus adult supervisors for two weeks – a use outside the project’s original design, which supplied about 55 adults.
“Work with Capt. Custons and his team at the Refinery was a huge help in making the connections for Project ArcWater to try and get the project into a program of record,” said Kenney, in response to a Refinery survey. “Additionally, the Refinery team helped in finding opportunities to get the ArcWater systems into the field for operational support in Poland.”
“As evidenced by these success stories, just three of many, the Refinery equips Airmen and Guardians with the resources and network they need to achieve their project goals and ultimately enable the greater force,” said Col. Martin Salinas, AFWERX Spark division chief. “The AFWERX Spark and Morpheus teams continue to refine their playbook, continuously evaluating the effectiveness of their curriculum.”
The Refinery ultimately supports Airman and Guardian innovation and helps ensure the nation’s competitive advantage, Salinas said.
“The Refinery program is both our strategic and tactical answer to [Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall’s Seven] operational imperatives,” he said. “This initiative prepares our Airmen and Guardians with a rapid and accelerated approach for successful transition or adoption into the larger organization. I’m extremely grateful to be able to see these innovators go from Spark Tank … to operational capability in just a few months’ time, thanks to the Refinery process.”
To learn more or submit project ideas to the Refinery, visit: https://afwerx.com/refinery/.
The Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit: www.afresearchlab.com.
AFWERX is an Air Force Research Laboratory Directorate that connects innovators across government, industry and academia. Through innovation and collaboration with our nation’s top subject-matter experts, AFWERX harnesses the power of ingenuity of internal talent while expanding technology, talent and transition partnerships for rapid and affordable commercial and military capability. Additional information is available at: https://www.afwerx.com/.
Spark connects Airmen and Guardians to commercial innovators using virtual collaboration, immersive training and networking opportunities to inspire ideas and cultivate a more creative force. By connecting operators closer to acquisition processes, Spark provides both a voice and a conduit to turn powerful ideas into game-changing operational realities. Additional information is available at: https://afwerx.com/spark_/.