For the first time, two teams tied as winners of the Spark Tank 2020 competition at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Feb. 28. The co-winners were from Luke Air Force Base and Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany.
“Making Waves,” a low-cost, mobile threat emitter system to be used in training for fifth-generation aircraft, was submitted by Luke Air Force’s team of Capt. David Coyle, 56th OSS weapons officer; 1st Lt. Adam Treece, 56th OSS intelligence readiness chief; and Wylie Standage Beier, ASU electrical engineering PhD student. The Germany-based team of Chief Master Sgt. Gabriel L. Flagg, Master Sgt. Gabrial A. Valenzuela and Tech. Sgt. Benjamin E. Angle won for their Weapons Loading Smart Checklist.
Spark Tank, which began in 2017, is an annual competition in which airmen are encouraged to submit innovative ideas to improve Air Force processes and products. The program is part of the Air Force’s effort to build and further its culture of innovation and intrepreneurship. Airmen submit their ideas through the Ideascale website, and finalists are chosen to present their ideas to Air Force senior leaders at the Air Warfare Symposium. The finalists compete for the funding, personnel or other necessary resources to implement their ideas.
Each team had three minutes to present their ideas to the judging panel, which included Secretary of the Air Force Barbara M. Barrett, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright, Toni Townes-Whitley, president, U.S. Regulated Industries, Microsoft, and Gene Kim, Tripwire founder and author of “The Unicorn Project.” The judges had four minutes to ask questions about each idea after it was presented.
The audience had access to a live poll to cast their votes during the event. Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, was brought up to the stage to serve as the tie breaker, but he determined that both teams had winning ideas.
“I am so energized by the creativity you bring,” Mr. Roper said. “I truly believe innovation is a battlefield and you guys are winning it. You crushed it today.”
Though only six finalists were chosen to present their ideas at Spark Tank, more than 200 ideas were submitted. Major commands host competitions throughout the year for those ideas that aren’t chosen but may still be appropriate for development.
Mr. Coyle and Mr. Treece talked about the need for the emitter, which will allow the Air Force to vary threat training scenarios.
“The problem we currently face in the Air Force is being able to replicate threats at a large number,” Mr. Coyle said. “As we look towards the future fight that we’re likely going to be involved in, the number of threats we’re going to face on the battlefield are higher than what we’re able to replicate on our range. The solution we’ve come up with is to create a low-cost emitter.”
The Barry M. Goldwater Range in Arizona currently features four threat emitters and three Garmin radars. The emitters replicate surface-to-air missile systems equipped with a radar designed to track, shoot and guide a missile to a target. Military aircraft are equipped with sensors to detect the radar emissions and alert the pilot where the threat is and what it is doing.
“These other systems [at the range] are very large, difficult to move, require significant infrastructure and the cost is high,” Mr. Treece said. “With our system, because we are using commercially available equipment, the cost is much lower allowing us to bring more systems and more mobility due to its compact size.
Because the current systems are difficult to move, they are usually located in the same place, providing little variation in the training scenarios.
“How do you create a dynamic training scenario when the threat is in the same place it was yesterday, last week or even five years ago?” Mr. Coyle asked. “The new systems are going to increase our lethality and survivability overall because we’re going to be able to train against a larger number of threats that are going to more accurately represent what an adversary is capable of doing.”
Currently, the systems are designed for fifth-generation aircraft: F-35A Lightning II and F-22 Raptor; and, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft.
Training pilots in environments that mimic real contingencies is essential to maintaining air superiority, Mr. Treece said. By creating a system that can provide pilots more realistic training, 56th OSS and ASU set an example of changing the Air Force from within the 56th Fighter Wing.
“It’s been an awesome opportunity to learn,” he said. “I’m thankful that our leadership has been supportive and they’ve allowed us this opportunity. We always believed in this idea and to have an opportunity to prove it, would be tremendous.”
Editor’s note: Airman 1st Class Leala Marquez of the 56th Fighter Wing Public Affairs office at Luke Air Force Base contributed to this report.