Solano Voices: Phoenix Spark jump-starts military innovation

September 26 2018

Daily Republic Sept 26, 2018

By Sandy Person

Imagine that you are 20 hours into a 24-hour day, operating a complex aircraft through a complex mission.

The critical pieces of your aircraft are operating in precision (the engines, the flight instruments, threat-detection systems). However, the aircraft galley used for sustenance has a few broken pieces. At a critical point in the day, you find that you cannot fuel your cognitive abilities through a cup of coffee or a hot meal because a handle is broken on a piece of galley equipment.

Simple problems such as this occur every day in every organization. Focus is often taken from these problems due to resource constraints, a perceived lack of relevancy or a lack of understanding the “customer’s” needs.

Tackling these problem-sets head on is a team of innovative and resourceful airmen at Travis Air Force Base.

The problem described above was solved with a 50-cent solution: 3D printed handles. The handles have a curved design and are made from more durable materials than the originals, minimizing the odds of breaking. They are also engineered to be easily replaceable, promising to save the Air Force tens of thousands of dollars. The Department of Defense has long struggled with rapidly addressing simple problems with out-of-the-box solutions, but has recently begun embracing approaches and lessons learned from the private sector.

So, how did a group of airmen at Travis have the opportunity to solve this challenge?

The catalyst was Phoenix Spark, the new initiative at Travis Air Force Base that was designed to connect military personnel with industry and academia in order to help leverage the rapid pace of innovation in the private sector to rapidly deliver leading-edge technologies to the warfighter today.

Since 2017, Phoenix Spark has hosted conferences with industry experts, participated in the Air Force-wide SPARK innovation summit, solved the challenge of designing effective suction cups for holding tablets that pilots can use to access their flight guides, and engaged with the brightest high school students across Solano County by hosting an innovation contest at Travis.

The program has been a tremendous success at Travis and highlights the program’s ability to create quick, local, creative solutions that can eventually be spread around the Air Force to improve everyone’s lives. It also allows airmen to see the fruits of their labor within their career cycle, which breeds a mindset of innovation among all airmen.

The Phoenix Spark program, and other idea generators like it, now fit into a broader Air Force-wide push to tap into the ingenuity of our nation’s airmen and connect them to the brightest minds in the private sector. In 2017, with the successes of Phoenix Spark as a model becoming apparent, the Air Force established AFWERX. The Air Force entity is tasked with establishing SPARK innovation cells like Phoenix Spark across the Air Force and is intended to be a catalyst for Air Force engagement across communities, industry and academia.

The types of projects that SPARK cells pursue include but are not limited to software and app development, machine learning, artificial intelligence, logistics management, automation and robotics, manufacturing technologies and virtual reality. With its stated goal being to foster a culture of innovation among the airmen, it appears that AFWERX will have very strong footing to build on.

The rapid pace of innovation within the private sector has given consumers a growing basket of new technologies to explore. In the past couple of years, the U.S. Air Force has decided that it too wants to tap into the entrepreneurial spirit that has fueled the growth of communities like Silicon Valley.

Travis Air Force Base and Air Mobility Command leadership have recognized that venture-backed start-ups are innovating at 10 times the speed of other organizations, which provided the inspiration to implement Phoenix Spark to encourage ground-level entrepreneurship and accelerate ideas. Whether it be creating new avenues for community engagement, providing a voice and outlet for the creativity of airmen, pioneering advancements in logistics software or making sure our pilots always have a hot cup of coffee within arm’s reach, the Air Force’s push to generate and implement ideas from its own airmen can only spark further progress.

Sandy Person is the industry engagement officer for the Solano Economic Development Corporation and a member of the Travis Community Consortium. Reach her at 864-1855 or