Team Robins “sparks” innovation: Spark Cell hosts inaugural Pitch Day

  • Published
  • By Shellie-Anne Espinosa
  • Robins Public Affairs

The Robins Spark Cell hosted its Inaugural Pitch Day Sept. 20 at the Advanced Technology and Training Center in Warner Robins, alongside Air Force Sustainment Center Contracting located at Robins Air Force Base. The pitch day is a first of its kind for AFSC, cutting a process that can take, on average, 100 days, down to just six.

The event is an initial prototype effort to assess the capabilities of current commercially available virtual reality training systems when used in a military environment, particularly within the 461st and 116th Air Control Wings at Robins.

The team is seeking to rapidly procure commercially available VR technology for the 461st and 116th Aircraft Maintenance Squadrons working with E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft. The technology would allow aircraft maintenance training through the use of training scenarios and modules for Team JSTARS members.

Successful implementation of a VR training system will enhance the mission effectiveness of about 500 JSTARS aircraft maintenance personnel. According to the Robins Spark Cell and AFSC Contracting at Robins, training retention using VR systems has been shown to be 60% more effective than traditional training.

An added plus to this pitch day is the awarding of “Other Transaction Authority” contracts. OTAs are often used to engage industry and academia for research and prototyping activities. OTAs help to speed along the acquisitions process, something that is important within the Air Force, particularly when handling items within the information technology sector where technology is constantly improving at a rapid pace.

Pitch Days allow for people to witness rapid, agile contracting in action. They give a forum for Air Force leadership to see innovative training technology platforms, meet companies within the training industry, and understand the procurement processes that take place to get these state-of-the-art systems into the hands of Airmen.

At the Inaugural Air Force Pitch Day held earlier this year in New York City, the Air Force awarded 51 contracts to companies valued at $8.75 million in a matter of minutes.

“The innovation and responsibility Other Transactions give back to the contracting officer and the evaluation team is refreshing and just what is needed to be able to execute an award faster and more efficiently,” said Elizabeth Midkiff, Robins AFSC Operational Services Contracting chief. “Pitch days allow the customer and contractors to interact, have live dialogue about the proposed solution, and receive meaningful feedback. Combing an OT with a pitch day with the perfect chemistry. I am so thankful to the leadership, my team and all the contractors that participated.”

Robins Pitch Day invited 15 companies to make proposals on their VR technology. From those companies, a short list was created to come to Pitch Day and give a 15-minute presentation to a committee of subject matter experts on why their technology will best fill the needs of aircraft maintenance personnel within Team JSTARS.

After the presentations, the committee worked with Robins OT contracting officers, to award one same-day contract.

“The combination of innovation initiatives and rapid agile contracting is the trend in the Air Force as a whole and the innovation hub intends to work closely with AFSC Contracting at Robins to bring warfighter capabilities here today and the future faster for Robins,” said Lt. Col. Jay Vizcarra, Robins Spark Innovation chief.

Before Pitch Day could happen, though, the VR needs of Team JSTARS Airmen needed to be defined.

“Airmen were connected with other innovation hubs, bases pursuing the tech, industry through multiple VR demos, workshops and innovation events,” said Vizcarra. “Additionally, a Virtual Reality Challenge was hosted online within the wing to capture the best ideas from Airmen. With this expansive network and some good ideation, VR requirements were defined. There were many challenges along the way, to include funding, contracting and legal, and, as you can clearly see, the success achieved [Sept. 20] was a culmination of great teamwork.”

This teamwork was orchestrated through the Robins Spark cell. Spark cells work directly with AFWERX to continue growing a culture of innovation within the Air Force, give Airmen pathways and resources while doing that, and create a network of experts from industry, academia and the government.

“The Robins Spark Cell will continue to fuse innovative Airmen, their ideas or problem sets with expertise and SMEs from other Department of Defense innovation nodes, industry, academia and the community,” said Vizcarra. “This is the new innovation ecosystem, and we are no longer confined to ‘stove-piped’ silos with many obstacles to improving our Air Force and delivering much needed capabilities. There are obvious synergistic effects to be gained with this ecosystem, and we hope to accomplish this. There are currently over 30 spark cells located at Air Force bases worldwide with AFWERX providing their expertise and additional gateways to SMEs.”

The Robins Spark Cell is relatively new to the installation. They plan on opening their innovation hub at Robins next month.

“With a physical Robins Innovation Spark cell location opening soon as Robins, we look to host workshops and free courses, like design thinking and 3D printing, as well as innovation challenges to incubate ideas into potential solutions for organizations,” said Vizcarra. “The hub will work together with units to ensure projects back by squadron innovation funds get to the finish line. The facility is also a makerspace with multiple 3D scanners/printers, virtual reality equipment, programming capabilities and commercial internet. It also serves as a crucial collaboration hub where local universities and industry can meet with Airmen to work together on projects.”

The next step for the Robins Spark Cell after this Pitch Day is to work on expanding the VR technology.

“It doesn’t end here with just landing a VR cape. We are working with more companies through a Small Business Innovation Research, which will not enable us to expand VR connectivity with other Air Force units, but accelerate the technology even further with more capes at no cost to the Air Force,” said Vizcarra. “SBIRs are congressionally mandated funds that have been benefiting innovation projects for the last year, which focuses on accelerating technology and solutions from small businesses to the warfighter. It’s a win-win across the board. Robins Spark hopes to bring more of this benefit to units at Robins.”