Six teams gathered on the stage at the AFA Warfare Symposium (AWS) in Orlando, Fla., in early March, taking part in the final round of Spark Tank, the Air Force’s flagship innovation event modeled after the popular “Shark Tank” TV show.
They could hardly have been more different in experience—pilots, a prosthodontist, a “blood banker,” a civilian-led trio, a noncommissioned officer, and a cadet. Yet they each had the chance to convince the top leaders in the Air Force that their idea was best.
In the end, it was the Senior Master Sgt. Brent Kenney who hoisted the trophy above his head as triumphant music swelled—his “Project Arcwater” idea narrowly bested “Custom Facemasks for Fighter Pilots and Beyond,” developed by the dentist, Maj. Ryan Sheridan.
The two received three votes each from the panel of seven “celebrity” judges, leading Air Force Chief Information Officer Lauren Barrett Knausenberger to take the stage, huddling briefly with the judges before declaring Project Arcwater the winner.
The whole process … helps encourage Airmen to take ownership of the things they do, as subject-matter experts in their area, and to think about how to do it better.Brou Gautier, director of Spark Tank
However, the trophy that Kenney received—3D printed, as the competition’s emcees point out every year—isn’t the real prize of the competition. Sure, the winner gets to keep it for a year, a little piece of physical bragging rights to go on the desk. But ultimately, it is almost beside the point. Indeed, the five other teams on that stage, smiling and applauding their rival in the competition, had already won almost as much. In fact, so had several other teams that didn’t even make it to Orlando.
‘The Real Value’ of Spark Tank
When Spark Tank first began in 2018, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson challenged Airmen to “share their best ideas that build upon senior leader priorities to restore readiness, increase the lethality of the force, and drive innovation to secure our future.”
In the first few years, hundreds of ideas poured in from “intrapreneurs”—a hybrid term describing entrepreneurs from inside the organization. But when it came time to actually implement some of the very best, officials ran into a problem.
“One of the things that we noticed over the first couple of Spark Tanks was, it was really on the passion of that intrapreneur … the subject-matter experts who see a better way to do this, they come up with this idea, and largely the work has been on them to make it real,” Brou Gautier, director of Spark Tank, told Air Force Magazine.
The passion of individual Airmen, Guardians, and civilians was admirable, Gautier said, but it had limitations. For one, those service members were often pursuing their ideas as a side project—and their main job in the Air Force often took precedent. For another, they sometimes lacked a broader context to assess whether the idea they were pitching was feasible to scale up.
The pageantry of the on-stage event was good—“It plays the role to generate that excitement piece,” Gautier admitted—but after the ceremony ended and the high-level leaders returned to their daily jobs, it was a struggle to translate ideas into action and, by Gautier’s own admission, the program didn’t have the needed structures in place.
“It’s great when the Secretary or the Chief or the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, or somebody says, ‘Yeah, this is a great idea, let’s go do it,’” Gautier said. “But the staff [at the Pentagon] still has to be convinced, right? Because the staff is kind of the guardians of the checkbook and capabilities and that kind of thing.”
Over the past few editions of the competition, Gautier has sought to rectify that problem. Now, every idea that makes it to the semifinals or further is assigned to a lead staff member at Headquarters Air Force in the Pentagon. From there, the member of the Air Staff investigates the idea to decide if it is viable and worthwhile to pursue.
If it is, the staff then works with the individuals who pitched the idea to help it come to fruition. But now, it isn’t entirely on the Airman or Guardian who pitched it to keep pushing the idea.
In some cases, like that of Senior Master Sgt. Bartek Bachleda, it’s been easy—Bachleda’s idea to re-engineer the boom operator instructor’s position for the entire KC-135 fleet to reduce injuries won the inaugural Spark Tank in 2018, and he was subsequently assigned by Air Mobility Command to help oversee the program. His idea became his job.
But not every competitor has that option, and the Air Force can’t afford to let good ideas go unexplored.
The competition “was almost really incomplete without the follow-on stuff,” Gautier said. “And so we’ve spent the last several years building out that follow-on stuff, so that you actually go from ideation through decision and a full communication cycle back to the intrapreneur.”
As of early February, Gautier had tracked 73 ideas, most from Spark Tank, some from the Vice Chief’s Challenge, a similar competition, as well as a few others. Of those 73, roughly 10 percent have been completed, 30 percent have been terminated, and 60 percent are still in progress.
In addition to the KC-135 boom operator idea that won in 2018, the Air Force has also implemented ideas for a mobile pod test stand, also a finalist in 2018, and pre-formatted templates in Microsoft to conform with Air Force style, Gautier said.
Not all of these ideas have become official programs of record, Gautier added. But they have reached a stage of implementation akin to full operational capability, he said.
“If you’re really like a venture capitalist, and you’re starting to say, ‘Well, yeah, not every idea that hits Silicon Valley is going to play out.’ So, what does ‘good’ look like? How many wins does it take for you to actually say that the program is successful?” Gautier said. “And I would say about 10 percent of our ideas have completed.”
Even the ideas that have been “rejected” have provided valuable lessons, Gautier said, raising questions that those in the Pentagon might not have considered.
“For every one of these grassroots ideas, it’s been an Airman who, this has been a personal pain point for them, and they think deeply about how to solve it, and to do [that work better]. So they went through [the logic] and came up with these ideas, and then they submitted into the process, and it’s a decent idea,” said Gautier. What holds back some, though, is a lack of planning for how members of the Air Staff can take the idea and move it forward, Gautier added.
The team members of every rejected idea receive a personal letter from the functional lead in the Pentagon who studied their idea, Gautier said, thanking them for their contributions. Ultimately, it’s not all that different from what the Spark Tank winners or those whose ideas are pursued get—there’s no prize money or guaranteed promotion in the competition.
Instead, “the real value … in the Spark Tank process is the feedback that we give that intrapreneur, that their idea was good or wasn’t good because of these things, and it keeps going or doesn’t based on the merits of that idea and the problem it’s solving,” Gautier said. “So the whole process ultimately is one that helps encourage Airmen to take ownership of the things they do, as subject-matter experts in their area, and to think about how to do it better.”
So even though it was Kenney getting congratulated on stage with the trophy at AWS, taking photos with Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass, his fellow finalists aren’t done with Spark Tank just yet. Indeed, in the months and years to come, at least some of their ideas are likely to become part of the Air Force, one way or another—now’s the time to familiarize yourself with them before they do.
Blood Delivery by UAV
The “blood banker” community in the Air Force is small but vital—when things go wrong and the delivery of blood can mean the difference between life and death for a service member, “you can’t fail,” Maj. Giselle Rieschick told Air Force Magazine. “Missions get scrubbed, people get hurt.”
Yet when Rieschick, a member of the 99th Medical Support Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., was deployed recently to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, she encountered a frustrating problem. There was a service member in need of blood, and a team with that blood got within 20 minutes of the member’s location. But the supplies never got there—the risk was too great to send a helicopter full of soldiers.
The service member managed to survive, but the incident sparked Rieschick and her team to start exploring a new way to ensure blood supplies can get to service members in need.
Currently, Rieschick said, the Defense Department spends millions supplying individual units with “just-in-case inventory”—a little bit of blood in case something goes wrong. This system has mostly been in place since the 1990s, she said, but it isn’t very practical. Often, when a service member needs blood, they quickly exhaust the supply their unit has.
“So what if, when they needed the help and they radioed it in to their nearest blood detachment center, that team sitting in that building with those products could load it and send it?” Rieschick said. “They wouldn’t have to go to the flight line, they wouldn’t have to go through all these channels and say who can help me get this blood here?”
The use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to deliver medical supplies is not a new idea. It has been used everywhere from Africa to Israel to North Carolina to get supplies to remote locations, limit contact, or increase convenience.
In a military context, however, the idea could be especially potent, Rieschick noted. Low-cost attritable aircraft like UAVs can be sent into dangerous situations without added risk to human life and simplify what is now a complicated logistical effort.
And this technology won’t just benefit blood delivery.
“What I see is that this capability to deliver things to a pinpoint location is not going to be limited to blood. Whether you’re going ship-to-shore in [INDOPACOM], or you’re doing logistical support in COCOM … they’re going to use this for other things that are needed, because there are many, many crazy makers where you’re just like, ‘I just … need this sent here’,” Rieschick said.
Aerial Tow Rehookup
Cadet Grant Schlichting may be young, but his idea has roots deep in Air Force history.
Taking part in the glider program at the U.S. Air ForceAcademy (USAFA), Schlichting noticed paintings of World War II gliders on the walls. Intrigued, he started doing research into the Air Force’s history with gliders and towing.
From that initial curiosity was born Aerial Tow Rehookup (ATR)—a system whereby drones can latch onto aircraft midflight using only a tow rope and mechanical connection and be towed to their destinations, extending their range.
The idea would be especially useful, Schlichting argues, as the Air Force looks to develop new autonomous drones to serve as “loyal wingmen” for fighters and bombers and as ISR assets.
Schlichting is just the second USAFA cadet to have reached the Spark Tank finals—in 2019, Preparatory School Cadet Usama Bamieh made the final six with his software program designed to help weather forecasters. Knowing Bamieh had made it that far, Schlichting said, encouraged him to enter the competition.
“And hopefully [we] will be an example for other cadets and other spark cells and people that may be new to the Air Force, that just because you’re new doesn’t mean that you don’t bring up a fresh perspective and a good idea that can help the future fight,” Schlichting said.
For his own idea, Schlichting already knows what he wants the next steps to be—first more experiments with the emerging technologies combat training squadron at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., then a manned flight test. Then, if the idea is still viable, he wants ATR to be “a methodology for the Air Force, not just it’s for one drone [but] that any drone you can combine to it.”
To make that happen, Schlichting is ready to pass off ATR to others to push forward. He still would like to stay involved as an innovation manager or reference for the program manager, but in the end, “I’m just shepherding this idea along, this is to help the Air Force,” he said.
DAGGER: Games for Enhanced Readiness
At their core, pilots in simulators aren’t all that different from Airmen playing on an Xbox, contends Matthew Correia of the Eaker Center at Air University in Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. And the Air Force should be taking advantage of that to train Airmen using the very thing so many already use regularly—video games.
“Simulators are unique, one-of-a-kind products, but in a true sense, they’re actually games,” Correia told Air Force Magazine. “They’re specific, but they’re actually games, just like League of Legends.”
The thought of using something like League of Legends, a multiplayer online game where players battle using fantastical characters, to train Airmen and Guardians will strike many as strange, Correia acknowledged.
But the new Airman Leadership Qualities, announced in February 2021, include skills such as teamwork, communication, decision making, and innovation, and those are things video games can teach, Correia said.
“Let’s practice the competencies of the executive functions, such as critical thinking, resource management, creative thinking, those things,” Correia said. “And within a game, you have the opportunity to do that. The game can be created, or the games actually already exist, where the solution is not one answer, it can be a range of answers, which is what true life is.”
Comparing the idea to an obstacle course or escape room used in a team-building exercise, Correia sees video games as a digital, and therefore global asset.
“I could go on to a cyber leadership reaction course here in the United States, with someone in Germany, someone in Korea, and quite literally, so long as the forward operating base has internet access, I could [work with] that person whatever continent they’re on,” Correia pointed out. “And we could practice our competencies.”
Correia’s vision extends further than that, though—the services should “embrace this opportunity to shift from lectures or computer-based training to game-based training or game-based learning,” he said.
Custom Facemasks for Fighter Pilots
Maj. Ryan Sheridan of the 10th Air Base Wing, Colorado Springs, Colo., (USAFA) is a dental specialist, not a pilot, but he stumbled on a problem one day while speaking with the flight surgeon responsible for fighter pilots—pilots were experiencing pain from their oxygen masks, with some even removing their masks during flight.
It’s not the first time that medical professionals have expressed concern about oxygen masks—a 2013 academic study found that half of F-16 pilots surveyed in the Royal Netherlands Air Force had discomfort or pain around the nose as a result of their masks.
Studying the issue further, Sheridan discovered something about the standard MBU-20/P oxygen masks that surprised him—they only come in five sizes. Given his professional background, Sheridan was confused.
“For me, making a crown for a patient or making a tooth for a patient, the notion of taking like 10 different stock sizes of crowns and trying to make them fit every single tooth that I have to fix, the notion is just absurd,” he said.
Sheridan had previously worked on an idea early during the COVID-19 pandemic to build customized N95 masks, taking advantage of the computer-aided design and manufacturing technology already widely used in dentistry, facial scanning technology available on smartphones, and 3D printers. He then simply shifted the idea to creating custom silicone inserts for oxygen masks.
The technology already exists and is widely available, and Sheridan said he’s already spoken with pilots who are excited about the idea. Moving forward, the goal is to gather data on how big the problem is and what it will cost to fix.
“Do we need to make these for every single pilot? I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s the case,” Sheridan said. “But I think that the biggest thing that we can do is just kind of collect data and allow our senior executive officers to … interpret that data and help them figure out where we need to go with the next steps.”
Every day, millions of people across the globe go to Apple’s App Store or the Google Play Store and download apps. Could the Pentagon one day have its own version?
That’s the idea behind Project FoX—fighter pilots across different planes, able to access and use the same software, software that is developed and fielded in a fraction of the time it takes today.
For now, the idea championed by Maj. Allen Black is focused on the F-22, which was recently upgraded with an Open Systems Architecture Rack, reducing the need for custom-made software to integrate with the fifth-generation fighter’s hardware.
Instead, the fighter can now take better advantage of commercial technologies, something Project FoX intends to take even further by using commercial tablets with a universal government interface that can display aircraft data in a common format, allowing developers to create their own apps.
This method also has the benefit of “segmenting the developmental code from an aircraft’s operational code,” Black said.
“As a result, changes can be made rapidly without impacting the airworthiness of the aircraft, taking the time required for testing cycles in software updates from months to days,” he added.
Black’s team is planning a demonstration in the coming months, using an app developed and tested on the F-35 that assists with the evasion of enemy surface-to-air missile on an F-22, with no redevelopment.
But this is only the start,” Black added. “We’re working to make this a reality on any platform that can connect to their data.”
The future, Black believes, is “a DOD App Store filled with cutting-edge technologies.”
The Air Force’s official doctrine note defining Agile Combat Employment articulated five core concepts: posture, command and control, movement and maneuver, protection, and sustainment. But the way the Air Force currently operates, that last element of sustainment presents a particularly large challenge.
“Imagine this: You’re on a mission with your team in the middle of nowhere. You have a tough job ahead and unfamiliar territory, but the space to take what you need is limited,” Kenney told the judges. “What do you cut? Fuel? Water? Tools? Teammates? Is your choice the right choice? … The most precious resource we have in mission-planning is pallet space. Pallet space determines what goes and what stays.”
The biggest non-negotiables are often fuel and water, and those can often take up large amounts of space. In March of 2021, Kenney teamed with Tech Sgt. Matthew Connelly to tackle the problem, stitching together ideas with the common goal of reducing the logistical footprint.
The end result is a three-pronged system. First, there’s the lightweight solar panels, so efficient they generated power during a test run even when it was snowing, Kenney said.
Second, there’s the water harvesters. Using solely the humidity in the air, one water harvester can generate nearly 30 gallons of water per day.
Finally, there’s an HVAC unit for heating and cooling workspaces that uses a third of the power of traditional units.
“Essentially, we’re taking independently conceived components out in the commercial world and we’re sewing them together into a package that fits the mission set of Agile Combat Employment: Small teams, very little resources, big tasks,” Connelly said.
Currently, “we buy fuel to fly fuel to transport fuel just to burn that fuel,” Kenney said. But the maturation of eco-friendly technologies makes that not only expensive, but unnecessary, he argued—Project Arcwater promises to cut costs by 98 percent for a standard mission while returning 60 percent of pallet space and reducing setup time for a forward operating location by more than 95 percent.