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AFRL Takes Creative Approach to Collaborating With Deployed Airmen on Innovation

Desert Spark Tank event at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar

Judges from AFWERX and the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing congratulate Airmen after the first-ever Desert Spark Tank event at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar on Dec. 10, 2019. The Desert Spark Tank is an AFWERX event designed to foster innovation across Al Udeid Air Base and the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Tech. Sgt. John Wilkes)


The visit to AUAB was a new way to immerse leadership in the deployed culture, and work alongside Airmen to cultivate the innovation outlets that air bases have access to. The AFRL team hopes to be the catalyst for new innovation routes throughout the Air Force. 

“Being closer to the ‘fight’ fosters a more open and receptive environment for ideas and problem solving,” said Capt. Luis Cordova, an AFRL team member who recently had been deployed to AUAB. “That’s why AUAB is an excellent place to share and influence Air Force innovation at the Airmen and operations level.”

AUAB is the largest expeditionary wing in the world and is strategically positioned to support Air Force campaigns in Southwest Asia and the Middle East. Over the course of a year, more than 50 thousand service members pass through the base. Some stay and others deploy to a forward location.

The AFRL team was composed of Branch Chief Oscar Martinez, and AFRL technology transfer program manager Matthew O’Brien. They joined others in the Air Force innovation community, to gain in-depth, first-hand insight into the day-today operations of the U. S. Air Force Central Command. Leading the visit was Lauren Knausenberger, Air Force Chief Transformation Officer, who was accompanied by  Lt. Col. Matthew Scott and Maj. Tony Perez of AFWERX, and 1st Lt. Ryan Dinh of AFRL.

“We were able to get a ‘real boots on the ground’ perspective,” O’Brien said. “After spending the night in the barracks, we headed off to breakfast at the DFAC (dining facility). There we heard perspective directly from the warfighter’s mouth.”

AFWERX is an organization within the Air Force, that is specifically designed to cultivate innovation and ideas that come from, or benefit Airmen. This can take on many forms, ranging from empowering Airmen entrepreneurs to identifying opportunities to leverage new technologies, to connecting Airmen entrepreneurs with researchers, thought-leaders, and cutting-edge companies.

In addition to the daily culture immersion, the AFRL team was able to take part in an AFWERX event called “Desert Spark Tank.” The event functioned to showcase the innovative ideas that AUAB Airmen had designed to solve problems on base—the setup being similar to that of the popular television show “Shark Tank.”

“AUAB offers the ability to influence large and small Air Force problems,” O’Brien said. “Partnering with AFRL would assist in making the base a direct pipeline for current technology options, and development of additional innovation efforts in other locations.”

AFRL leaders are currently discussing ways to improve the cultivation of ideas and solutions to the problems that AUAB faces. Plans include finding a method of addressing the sustainability of the innovation infrastructure. The base has been known to have high turnover rates for its occupants and that can make implementing a consistent innovation program challenging. 

“The goal is to build a sustainable innovation model at a base where the constant is the high turn-rate of Airmen,” Cordova said. “This would be the first of its kind, and could grow to other forward-deployed locations to give feedback directly to future research efforts.”