U.S. Air Force Leverages External Innovation with AFWERX to Surface Innovative Ideas

By Siena Lee | External Innovation
November 26, 2018

Providing our airmen and women and operators of the US Air Force with top-notch technology is crucial to keeping our country safe.

Spigit recently partnered with AFWERX, a product of the Air Force launched
with innovation hubs around the US, to solve some of their biggest challenges through crowdsourced innovation.

A collaboration between the USAF and non-military contractors, and directly envisioned by Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, AFWERX was created with the objective of overcoming some of the toughest obstacles facing the US Air Force. One of the key capabilities of AFWERX is AFWERX Vegas, a non-government entity opened by Vice President Mike Pence in January 2018 to bring together a coalition of entrepreneurs, industry, academia, investors, individual innovators, and Air Force problem solvers to find innovative new ideas and rapidly bring them into use across the Air Force, and enhance a culture of innovation.

How is AFWERX harnessing the ideas and creativity of these contributors? Through crowdsourced innovation, enabled through a central platform known as AFWERXChallenge.com where participants can ideate and collaborate any time, anywhere.

What is AFWERX Challenge?

AFWERX Challenge is a platform, heavily relying on Spigit’s crowdsourcing technology, that enables the world of startups, small businesses, academia, and defense to collaborate through ideation in one central platform that can be accessed anywhere.

With a goal of further strengthening the Air Force through this collaborative initiative, General Stephen Wilson, Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, explains the importance of the AFWERX Challenge perfectly: “We’ve got to innovate to maintain America’s security. We’ve created the AFWERX Challenge to accelerate inventive solutions from individuals, startups, small business, large enterprises, academia and research labs in the most collaborative way and get them to America’s airmen at the speed of relevance.”

General Wilson touches on an important point that we absolutely believe in at Spigit: harnessing the collective intelligence and collaborating with crowds – whether it’s employees, customers, or some other type of crowd – is what surfaces opportunities and drives innovation.

How does AFWERX Challenge work?

The process of engaging with the AFWERX Challenge is very interactive. Participants can view, comment, rate and community vote on each other’s submissions.

Four easy steps to participation:

  1. Go to AFWERXChallenge.com
  2. Submit your solution to the challenge
  3. Vote on ideas from others in the challenge community (USAF evaluation occurs)
  4. Attend the challenge showcase to meet in person USAF evaluators and demonstrate your solution

AFWERX Challenge Process

  1. Discovery – Background research, stakeholder discussions as well as deciding who should be involved in the workshop and challenge
  2. Workshop – Bring together subject matter experts to understand & define the problem and identify elements of the solution requirement
  3. Challenge – Open innovation challenge to industry and academia with review from subject matter experts
  4. Exhibit – Selected challenge entrants come together with potential customers
  5. Demonstrate – Demonstration of solutions to potential customers
  6. Contract – Solutions contracted to USAF to benefit the warfighter
  7. Impact – Impact to the Air Force in efficiency and effectiveness

What challenges are happening now?

Revolutionizing Pilot Training Open Challenge:

In the last several years, the USAF has been losing pilots to the airline industry.

To retain talented pilots, the AFWERX Challenge launched a specific challenge to training the next generation of USAF pilots utilizing emerging technologies and learning methods. Our Air Force is currently short 2,000 pilots, which directly motivated the launch of the experimental Pilot Training Next (PTN) program.

The PTN program strives to train students in a shorter time period, without losing quality. Although some training improvements have been made, work still needs to be done. The AFWERX team encourages people from specific industries, such as data science, artificial intelligence and biometrics to contribute their compelling solutions.

Mixed Reality Platform Open Challenge:

Maintenance Operations and Training Augmented Reality (MOTAR) is a new idea to help aircraft maintenance crews minimize human error and increase training speed. This challenge encourages experts in augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), or mixed reality (MR) to submit their solutions and help improve USAF aircrew maintenance, operations, and training.

Advanced Microelectronics Design & Prototype Challenge:

AFWERX partnered with Air Force Research Labs (AFRL) to find Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) and System on a Chip (SoC) solutions to improve autonomous vehicles. AFWERX is seeking products or solutions that utilize top-of-the-line ASIC and SoC qualities offered by commercial industries. This is a five phase challenge that will happen over the next 12 months. The first phase allows participants to submit their ideas and is active now. Interested in participating? Phase one ends January 22.

USAF New Helmet System Challenge:

This challenge is now closed for idea submission and community voting. A Vegas showcase was held November 14 where 38 teams presented their ideas to a panel of Air Force leaders. This challenge focuses on redesigning and replacing the Fixed Wing Aircrew helmet used by pilots and aircrew. Up to $20M dollars has been budgeted to fix this problem with three end goals in mind: enhancing aircrew performance, safety and satisfaction.

What’s in it for participants?

As it turns out, there’s quite a lot of incentive for people to participate, including:

  • A chance to participate in prototype and experimentation funding
  • Potential for a government contract
  • Potential SBIR funding
  • Opportunity to attend events in Austin and Las Vegas
  • Official recognition for your brand or idea
  • Peer and customer collaboration with industry and the government
  • Opportunity to help the Air Force and improve the lives of the people that keep us safe

With any external innovation challenge, incentivizing crowds to participate is critical. The AFWERX Challenge is feeding into this “exchange of value” very nicely. If participants deliver quality solutions, they’ll reap awesome benefits such as: an opportunity to attend showcase events and collaboration with peers from the Air Force team.

Final Thoughts

Some of the most innovative organizations on the planet – like Siemens and the United Nations – leverage external innovation to surface new opportunities. It enables them to access a larger pool of ideas, and embrace collective thinking of people around the world to solve problems.

More and more companies are realizing how powerful external innovation is when tackling their toughest challenges. AFWERX understands that the right solutions can change the future of the US Air Force. Sometimes, to get the most innovative ideas, you have to go beyond your company’s four walls and tap into the intelligence of external crowds.

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