The 2017 Air Force Research Laboratory Commander’s Challenge kicked off with teams and leaders from around Air Force Materiel Command coming together for a three-day conference at the Wright Brothers Institute Tec^Edge Innovation and Collaboration Center here Aug. 2, 2017.
AFRL Commander Maj. Gen. William T. Cooley opened the 10th iteration of the annual design competition that poses real-world problems to teams of six to eight junior personnel from diverse educational and cultural backgrounds from across AFMC. This year’s competition features teams from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio; Eglin Air Force Base, Florida; Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts; and Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.
“This is really an opportunity for [the teams] to learn and grow,” Cooley said. “It’s also an opportunity, as we have seen in prior Commander’s Challenges, to actually do something that matters. We have several examples from past Commander’s Challenges that have actually been deployed and have gone on to become solution sets for some of these hard problems.”
This year’s challenge came straight from Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein, according to Cooley. Based on resupplying combat troops deployed from a forward operating base, the “Precision Remote Resupply” challenge requires teams to develop solutions to remotely deliver 50 pounds of supplies, 30 miles away, to an area not larger than 400 square feet -- all at low cost, with minimal manpower to operate and maintain. Other than those parameters, teams are free to design any system that could successfully perform the mission.
“Resupplying troops is difficult,” said Capt. Alec Rasmussen, Commander’s Challenge deputy project officer. “You’ve got a unit out there. They need more ammo, more batteries, more food, more water, whatever. Getting things to them is difficult. Current solutions are expensive and not workable in a contested environment. So, resupply along those lines is a difficult challenge.”
Making the Commander’s Challenge even more demanding is the budget and timeline. Systems must be developed for under $50,000 and completed within six months, culminating in a full-capability demonstration as part of a head-to-head competition with the other teams.
“The challenge of doing it within a short time and with a small budget just provides incentive for the teams to think more creatively,” Rasmussen said.
The Commander’s Challenge is designed to be stressful in order to harness the energy and bright ideas of the junior workforce, said Dr. Alok Das, AFRL Senior Scientist for Design Innovation. He says the challenge capitalizes on the human response to a competitive environment in order to generate innovation, while also professionally developing the Air Force’s next generation of innovators.
It’s a generation seemingly full of technically skilled people with hearts for service.
“I figured that this type of problem we’re having this year is really meaningful and could potentially help a lot of situations overseas,” said 1st Lt. Michael Ledford, an electrical engineer with the Wright-Patterson AFB team. “So, with an electrical background and some knowledge of GPS, I figured I wanted to use that knowledge to help solve this challenge.”
The desire to participate in the challenge is also a return to the passion that spurred careers to begin with.
“I love it,” said Ledford. “From an engineer’s perspective, being able to tackle this challenge is one of my dreams come true.”
And team members are itching to solve the problem.
“Because I [want] to actually build something with my hands,” said Joseph Allison, team lead from Eglin AFB and an eight-year system engineer in the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile program. “I wanted to actually get back to what real engineering is because, being in a program office, you’re checking other people’s engineering, you’re not doing it yourself.”
Allison’s team is comprised of two engineers, a technician, logistician, a program manager, a contract specialist and a physical scientist. He’s confident his team has what it takes to win.
“This is easily doable,” said Allison. “I do think that there will be some challenges that come along with it, but I think we’ll be able to overcome them.”
Team members attended briefings during the three-day event on a wide range of subjects from Army aerial delivery and frequency management to how to identify patentable ideas and financial management accountability to understand the acquisition process and better prepare them to undertake the challenge. Break-out and mentorship sessions allowed for early brainstorming, consulting with subject matter experts and learning how to procure materials and test processes as the teams begin their path on fielding solutions. It was a lot of training, designed to jumpstart innovation.
“It’s intentionally designed to put stress on the team to show them that it can be done. Every team for the last 10 iterations has successfully accomplished this with almost no money and almost no time,” said Capt. John P.K. Walton, project officer for the 2017 AFRL Commander’s Challenge. “It really showcases what the acquisition process could be, and has been in certain situations that dictated it. You don’t need to spend 20 years to get to a solution. You can come up with a viable solution within this time window and demo it.”
Teams will now return to their home bases to work continuously on the challenge with their mentors, both local and distant, according to Walton. None of the teams will be aware of what other teams are working on until the final demonstration sometime early in 2018. The best concepts demonstrated may find their way into new or existing Air Force projects for possible deployed use or further development.
Even if solutions don’t end up being the next best thing in the Air Force, team members should have a lot to take away from the challenge.
“I hope they can actually take the experiences they have here and transfer them to [their normal jobs], recognizing processes and policies that can be done better so we can shorten [acquisition] timelines,” said Rasmussen. “The key here is getting capabilities to the warfighter in a faster time.”
AFRL conducts three challenges a year: the Commander’s Challenge; the Military Academy Challenge, vying teams from the Navy, Army and Air Force service academies; and the University Challenge, a competition between 10 selected universities.
AFRL design challenges are part of the AFRL Innovation Program, which also includes rapid prototyping spaces, such as Tec^Edge and Tec^Edge Works in Dayton, open innovation and crowd sourcing, partnerships with small business, advanced collaboration environments and prediction markets.