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The Spark of Innovation

  • Published
  • By A1C Drew Cyburt
  • 27th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs

Some view ‘innovation’ as a refreshing new idea; while others roll their eyes, tired of the ever-changing linguistic landscape we have to navigate. ‘Innovation’ in the military cannot be dismissed, because it has allowed us to go from the Loening PW-2 monoplane fighter in 1920 to the F-35 Lightning II, all in the span of 100 years.

AFWERX is a U.S. Air Force program meant to bring new innovations and ideas to the service. It encompasses various smaller programs that foster growth and ingenuity within the Air Force, as well as build relationships with new entrepreneurs and cut the red tape of bureaucracy.

“AFWERX is the umbrella term for all of the Air Force’s innovation efforts, and the Spark Cells are each wing or base’s individual hubs and efforts to get innovation going,” said 1st Lt. Leighann D’Andrea, 27th Special Operations Civil Engineering Squadron chief of project management. “Innovation is definitely not a one-size fits all sort of thing, and AFWERX recognizes that.”

D’Andrea has worked with Cannon AFB’s Spark Cell for the past year and a half, and has witnessed first-hand the benefits of such innovations.

“Spark Cells can do whatever they think would add value to their base. Whether that be education efforts, teaching people new skills, new hardware and software skills, or whether it’s teaching people how to pitch an idea,” D’Andrea said.

Other advantages include fostering a connection with others who may have more knowledge about certain ideas and bringing that knowledge to the foreground.

“We have a couple of really awesome small business innovation research contracts that we helped facilitate. One that immediately comes to mind is Golden with our public health office,” said D’Andrea. “Public health used a dashboard that Golden created to help in their efforts of quarantine regulations for our Airmen. It helped keep our base safe, open and healthy.”

“In the early stages of the pandemic, there were no COVID-19 dashboards that provided a complete picture of every county’s infectious rates,” said Maj. Mossaab Benhammou, 27th Special Operations Medical Readiness Squadron public health emergency officer. The public health office had to research every state’s health department website and figure out if the member needed to quarantine. “Calculating the data was highly technical.”

Partnering with Golden allowed public health to build a dashboard that showed infectious rates of COVID-19 by state and county. This allowed them to quickly gauge situations, and provide prompt risk assessments to both commanders and travelers with 99% accuracy.

The public health office is not the only part of Cannon AFB that has been supported by the innovation Spark Cell provides. The 27th Special Operations Maintenance Group recently hosted a virtual reality CV-22 Osprey training boosted by a contract with Occupath, and the medical group worked with Enduvo to aid in VR training as well.

“The world is changing. We have to change with it,” said Dr. William Roper, former Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. “The key is to decide which technology will be successful and being able to act on those trends with a system that is leaner, meaner and faster than our opponents.”

Dr. Roper’s quote from 2019 hits closer to home with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr.’s recent document titled ‘Accelerate Change or Lose’. In the document, Brown states that we must accelerate change in order to control the air domain, and if we fail to adapt to a changing world, we’ll suffer the consequences.

“If we’re going to enhance our national security, we need to strengthen these relationships with commercial industry and emerging technology,” D’Andrea said.

While AFWERX as a whole has been helping the Air Force since its inception in 2017, change and innovation never come easy.

“You need to find what will add value to your base. You’re probably not going to get it right the first or second time,” D’Andrea said. “It’s a lot of trial and error to see what works and what truly adds the value and what makes an impact.

“I think our Spark Cell can have a big impact here at Cannon if we focus more on the education aspect. Especially in this COVID environment where a lot of things are virtual, it could be beneficial if we host some classes just to get people thinking outside the box and thinking differently.”

Thinking differently can mean a variety of things to people, but D’Andrea has her own take on it:

“I think ‘innovation’ has a reputation of being a buzzword, and innovation is not a buzzword. It is an actionable thing that you can incorporate in your daily work,” D’Andrea said with a smile. “That’s what our Spark Cell is trying to figure out: how to instill it into more and more people. Innovation can be a state of thinking, or it can be changing how you do something.”