AFWERX’s Innovation Lab Will Change USAF Acquisition, Once It Gets Its Name Out

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson gives a speech before introducing Vice President Mike Pence during the AFWERX-Vegas grand opening, Jan. 11, 2018. Air Force photo by SrA. Kevin Tanenbaum.

A focal point of the Air Force’s move toward disruptive innovation and changed acquisition is a four story, still unfinished lab in Las Vegas that is outfitted with 3D printers and carbon-fiber ovens.

AFWERX’s Vegas innovation lab is focused on speeding up and changing the way the Air Force acquires technology.

“Our job is to get quick wins on the board [and] show AFWERX has potentially awesome solutions for the Air Force so we’re not just a nice story. We add value as well,” said Mark Rowland, the interim director of the Vegas lab.

The overall structure of AFWERX stretches across the country, with the “corporate” headquarters based at the Pentagon and in Crystal City, Va., just outside Washington, D.C. Vegas is the first “innovation hub,” with another expected to open next month in Austin, Texas.

The Vegas building had a large celebration at its opening in January, with Vice President Mike Pence and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson in attendance. Since then, the actual work of hiring a permanent staff and outfitting the facility has been underway. The lab is reaching out to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas engineering school to be able to bring in students as interns, and creating relationships with other labs in the Vegas area.

The lab wants to ensure it wasn’t just the “flavor of the month,” and is focused on bringing ideas to the Air Force.

The service has a problem called the “Valley of death,” where ideas end up dying because they come to the Air Force too slowly, the proposal didn’t have funding, or the originator went out of business, among a multitude of other reasons, said Rowland.

“A lot of really good ideas and potential solutions don’t see the light of day” because they get stuck, he added.

That’s where the innovation lab can come in to help. The lab is reaching out to companies and organizations that might have these ideas but may not be able to respond to a several-dozen-page proposal on FedBizOpps or that might lack the initial funding to be able to build an engineering and development prototype.

“It could be the best idea ever, but we just don’t know it,” Rowland said.

They want one-page ideas, or 90 second videos of ideas that can be turned into a prototype for cheap. This way a proposal could get a “quick no, maybe, or yes” instead of a long, drawn out, expensive process that would still end up in a no, he said.

The first mission area AFWERX is focusing on is perimeter security. The idea was first raised as a way to counter unmanned aerial systems, but Rowland pushes back on this thought. The lab does not want to only focus on UAS, it’s about finding better overall ways to protect the perimeter of a sensitive area. It could be focused on UAS, or the idea could be broader.

Next month, the Vegas lab will hold a two-day expo focused on understanding the problem of securing a perimeter. It will solicit ideas from startups, small businesses, and academia. Then the lab will down select in preparation for another event in September.

Because the lab is so new, it’s biggest problem is just recognition. It’s a big country, so “how do we make sure we try to find nodes of connectivity across the country,” Rowland said. “We’re trying to figure out this ‘neural network.’”