PRE-GAME PART THREE: PROJECT LOGISTICS

Dissecting the Design Sprint Event

PRE-GAME PART THREE: PROJECT LOGISTICS

What do hotels, food, security, and video recording have in common? They’re all part of the chain of logistics that happens behind the scenes before a successful event. The AF CyberWorx logistics guru is Cheyenne Ellis. She does more than just gather and send out a hotel list and coordinate access badges and video recording of the event outbrief. She also lines up transportation into the secure location where events are held, builds baskets with supplies for each breakout team, coordinates with our support team for food delivery, ensures buildings and elevators are accessible, and a myriad of other small details to let participants and the team focus their energy on the problem being worked during the event.

For her to be successful, though, she needs the cooperation of stakeholders and participants involved in the event. She says the most important thing she needs is for participants to fill out the requested information as quickly and accurately as possible. Otherwise, she may be unable to help, constrained by security or other deadlines. “We’re very strategic on what we ask for. We’re doing this because we need to.”

The place to give information is through the portal every participant is directed to at registration. The information provided allows Cheyenne to acquire security badges, lets her know if there are any food allergies (or preferences), as well as gives contact information in case there’s a last-minute change or weather issues to ensure participant safety and comfort. Without the proper information, we can’t get you on base, get you access badges, and through security to attend the event.

It’s critical that participants read the information they’re given before arriving on base for an event. It may involve what to bring (and not bring), base visitor hours, directions to the parking area, shuttle transportation, and how to navigate the maze of hallways to AF CyberWorx.

For stakeholders, the most important thing is to be involved and responsive, even if they are unable to attend the event. The best results happen when stakeholders give fully fleshed-out directions including their goals and a fully formed problem statement. Not only do these give the problem-solving team direction, they keep the stakeholder in the loop with what’s going on. The stakeholder is a critical part to shaping the way forward to a solution. Having involved stakeholders helps the event run smoother from the beginning all the way through approving implementing changes identified by the project teams.

AF CyberWorx does as much work behind the scenes as possible to make a design sprint run as smoothly as possible. Without cooperation from participants, however, that work is difficult. Be prepared with your end of the logistics and we will be that much more effective at designing a solution!

*The postings on this blog reflect individual team member opinions and do not necessarily reflect official Air Force positions, strategies, or opinions.

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PRE-GAME PART FOUR: PARTICIPANT ROLES

Dissecting the Design Sprint Event

PRE-GAME PART FOUR: PARTICIPANT ROLES

Many moving pieces go into a successful design event at AF CyberWorx. Each person has a specific role to play: multiple roles, in some cases! While the most visible roles are the participants and the facilitator at the head of the room, the magic wouldn’t happen without everyone involved.

Stakeholders: Each event begins with a stakeholder. Some events have more than one; but the role is the same: to provide direction for the event and everyone involved. They know what the problem is, why it’s a problem, and what the end goals are. Without an involved stakeholder, the event is missing the backbone that provides structure and focus for the entire event.

Decision Makers: The decision maker isn’t always a stakeholder, and doesn’t always need to be 100% involved. When the decision maker controls funding and manpower, but doesn’t operate in the area on a day-to-day basis, they rely on the stakeholders to brief them about the event findings to decide on the areas to support.

Participants: As one of the most visible roles in the design event, participants are the vehicle for shaping the magic. They fill the problem solving process with relevant information and experience to arrive at unique solutions to the stakeholder’s problem. Nearly all participants are hand-picked because they can give the most benefit to (and benefit from) the event. The greatest impact participants make is being engaged as early as possible all the way through to the final outbrief.

Industry Partners: Non-government participants play an important role in an event, as well. AF CyberWorx invites industry specialists to join in problem solving according to their expertise. They provide key insight into the commercial world’s capabilities and direction of growth. The additional knowledge and experience they bring to a design sprint expands potential solutions beyond many current government abilities. They also add a diversity to the group that helps break down traditional military and organizational barriers to increase team effectiveness.

Facilitators: The other highly visible role in an event are the facilitators. They come in two flavors:

  • Strategist: The strategist is usually, but not always, the lead facilitator. They take the information the stakeholder provides and determines the structure of the event. Depending on how developed the initial problem statement is, they may spend more or less time on refining the problem or devote more time to having the subject matter experts fill in missing information. The strategist determines the general shape the event will take before the participants even finish registering.
  • Facilitators: There is the lead facilitator, who leads the problem solving team, explains activities and times breakout groups, and guides the entire event according to the plan the strategist outlined. The other facilitators provide support to both the problem solving team and the lead facilitator. They field questions, act as the eyes and ears of the lead facilitator, and ensure breakout groups have the support they need through information and materials. Most, if not all, of our facilitators are professionally trained UX designers.

Project Management Team: The project management team provides the support behind the scenes for the event. From logistics to security, access to secure facilities for classified information, and everything in between, the project management team works to ensure the minutiae are taken care of to let the problem solving team focus on the event.

Customer Relationship Owner: Last, but certainly not least, the customer relationship owner ensures that everyone involved gets what they need out of the event. The customers include the stakeholders, the industry specialists, the decision makers, and the organizations involved. They continue working even after the event is finished to connect industry and governmental organizations to make working towards a solution as viable as possible.

AF CyberWorx believes in the full concept of seeking and implementing improvement. The entire team works in their respective roles to best support finding and implementing solutions to the best of our abilities. Together, we can support the continued growth and superiority of the US Air Force in a rapidly evolving global theater.

*The postings on this blog reflect individual team member opinions and do not necessarily reflect official Air Force positions, strategies, or opinions.

STEP ONE: REFINING THE PROBLEM

Dissecting the Design Sprint Event

STEP ONE: REFINING THE PROBLEM

The first step during a design sprint at AF CyberWorx is refining the problem. Stakeholders have an idea of what problem they want to solve. They may want to save time, streamline or automate processes, fix a system showing bad metrics, or set up a policy for a new requirement. Initial problem statements may reflect this focus, but usually lack the specifics the problem solving team needs to be effective.

Larry Marine, lead UX designer at AF CyberWorx, explains why it’s so important to re-examine the problem statement. As he states, “If you don’t know what problem you need to solve, the best you can hope to do is solve the wrong problem very well.” Just like a mission statement gives direction for a business, an accurate problem statement gives teams a solid visualization of what they need to achieve. Larry gives an example of a poor problem statement from his previous experiences:

“A mortgage company needed to improve their processes to increase efficiency. A common problem in the organization was epitomized by one form which required twenty four separate signatures. Copies of these forms were stored in filing cabinets that took up an entire floor of their building. The solution seemed simple: digitize the forms. However, during problem analysis research, the team found that the form hadn’t been necessary since a procedural change 20 years ago! Though their problem statement in this case included digitizing the form, they ended up cutting costs and regaining resources by simply getting rid of the unnecessary form.”

This simple example shows why problem refinement is the first step in every AF CyberWorx event. To help develop solutions that are impactful, meaningful, and effective, facilitators first guide event participants through the process of analyzing the problem to redefine the problem statement to be more accurate to ensure they achieve their desired outcome. Larry explains that some of the most common issues found in an initial problem statement include (1) making a solution the problem statement, (2) fixing symptoms instead of the root problem, and (3) forgetting that a problem can evolve over time.

When the initial problem statement says something like, “we need to digitize…” or otherwise describe a specific action, it’s giving a solution, not stating a problem. People often come into a problem solving event with a solution already in mind. They think, “I know what we need to do,” especially when they have a lot of experience with the problem. A solution-based problem statement supports that and guides the team to do something specific, albeit incorrect. If the team has the solution already, why should they go through the problem solving process? They already have the answer. The mortgage company already had an answer, but the team soon found the answer wasn’t the best solution. Refining the problem statement gives the team a more solution-agnostic goal to encourage the free thinking which finds the right solutions.

Another common issue initial problem statements have is a focus on symptoms instead of a root cause of the problem. For example: when the problem statement says, “We need to reduce the rejection rate from 65%.” The rate is a symptom of a larger problem. A better statement is, “Customers don’t know what information to give us, leading to a 65% rejection rate,” but it’s still focused on a symptom. To avoid creating another band-aid that simply covers a symptom, finding the root cause of those symptoms leads to a more impactful set of solutions. An even more accurate problem statement using root cause analysis might read, “Customers are looking for a tool to tell them what information to give, but can’t find it so don’t give the right documents.” The problem needs to be redefined with root cause analysis to aim at a deeper level than surface symptoms.

A third common mistake with initial problem statements is believing that a “fix” for an old problem will work now with a little tweaking. Larry explains that when a problem is “solved,” that solution tends to change slowly through time, ignoring the fact that the problem itself is changing as well. Basically, “We’ve always done it this way.” The form with the mortgage company is a good example. The problem hadn’t been examined in so long that no one realized the problem source wasn’t even necessary anymore. Refining the problem in this case verifies what the current nature of the problem is to develop an effective solution.

When AF CyberWorx leads a team through re-examining the problem, they aren’t wasting time by rehashing work that’s already been done. They’re refining the problem to ensure it is accurate, correctly identifies what needs to be fixed, removes solution bias, and pinpoints the team’s focus on the most impactful problem. As Larry states, “We look at details that they gloss over or can’t describe. If the refined problem statement looks like the initial one, we’ve likely missed something.” Using specialized experience and best-practice tools, facilitators help teams refine not only the problem statement, but the mindset of the team to make their problem-solving experience more efficient and positive in the short amount of time allotted to a design sprint.

*The postings on this blog reflect individual team member opinions and do not necessarily reflect official Air Force positions, strategies, or opinions.

Air Force CyberWorx Announces New and Renewed Partnership Intermediary Agreements

Air Force CyberWorx is pleased to announce their Partnership Intermediary Agreements with the following nonprofits: The Center for Technology, Research and Commercialization (C-TRAC), Montana State University-MilTech, Purdue Research Foundation, and RTI International.

AF CyberWorx PIA Partnerships

“AF CyberWorx is privileged to be able to extend our reach to valuable and insightful industry partners through Partnership Intermediary Agreements,” said AF CyberWorx Director Col Bill Waynick. “These relationships are critical to our mission of delivering the most impactful, user-focused solutions to our warfighters as quickly as possible.”

Each organization will bring its unique strengths to enhance AF CyberWorx’s capabilities.

C-TRAC is located at Catalyst Campus in downtown Colorado Springs, CO. It serves the country and bolsters the economy by bringing together government, education, and industry partners to meet our warfighter’s needs at market speed – fulfilling their vision of co-creating national capabilities. This will be C-TRAC’s fourth year partnering with Air Force CyberWorx as a Partnership Intermediary.

A Partnership Intermediary with a history in working with the Department of Defense, MilTech’s mission is to accelerate the transition of new technology to the U.S. Warfighter. Since 2004, MilTech has performed over 150 technology acceleration and transition projects for every military service including joint and special commands.

The Purdue Research Foundation’s Office of Technology Commercialization operates one of the most comprehensive technology transfer programs among leading research universities in the United States. Founded in 1930, the foundation brings years of experience in managing and licensing intellectual property and negotiating research contracts.

RTI International is an independent, nonprofit research institute dedicated to improving the human condition. Their vision is to address the world’s most critical problems with science-based solutions in pursuit of a better future. Their multi-disciplinary approach to answering questions integrates expertise across the social and laboratory sciences, engineering, and international development.

AF CyberWorx solves challenging cyber problems facing our nation through the use of human-centered design while simultaneously educating airmen and cadets on these practices. The AF CyberWorx team recognizes the significant advances enabled through industry partnerships and has structured a mission around these synergistic relationships.

Air Force CyberWorx Director Engages Colorado Springs Defense Community at AFCEA Luncheon

Lieutenant Colonel Michael Chiaramonte, Director of AF CyberWorx, had the honor of being the guest speaker at the monthly Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA) Rocky Mountain Chapter luncheon, held May 16 at the Peterson Air Force Base Club.

The AFCEA Rocky Mountain Chapter serves the defense, intelligence, national security, and military health communities surrounding the five major military installations in Colorado. AFCEA’s 800 local members assist the Colorado Springs community by unifying the robust military, government, and industry partners to advance the continuing education of today’s young leaders in science, technology, engineering, math, and computer science fields.

Lt Col Chiaramonte, a 2001 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) who holds a Ph.D. in Industrial Engineering from Arizona State University and has been Director of AF CyberWorx since February 2018, described the history, purpose, and ambitions of this innovative organization before a packed room of attendees.

Lt Col Chiaramonte explained that AF CyberWorx was originally proposed in 2014 to spur innovation and rapidly develop cyberspace solutions for the Air Force. The Air Force Academy was chosen as the ideal place to house the new organization because of USAFA’s designation as a federal laboratory, the academic resources available in a university setting (including a pool of 4,000 cadet innovators), and the unique industry partnering opportunities available for leverage. In addition to taking advantage of the cadets’ creative problem-solving today, AF CyberWorx is able to imprint these future Air Force leaders with the mindset and skills they will need to help the Air Force identify and deliver solutions to future challenges.  

Lt Col Chiaramonte described AF CyberWorx’s strategic design process which sets it apart from other similar organizations. In its approach to projects, which originate in operational Air Force units, the organization works with industry partners, using human-centered design and user-focused empathy to drill down to the root of the problem and identify possible solutions that align with the mission of the sponsoring organization. Some solutions are selected to be prototyped, from which one may be selected for further development and ultimately delivered back to the user and potentially scaled for use Air Force-wide.

AF CyberWorx’s process and culture are counter to the Department of Defense’s way of doing business through its traditional requirements process. The DoD uses five-year budgets and demands that a product is fully defined prior to production, with delivery most often projected several years in the future. That process may be appropriate for major programs like fifth-generation fighter aircraft, but it does not work in the rapidly-evolving cyber realm. Instead, AF CyberWorx allows Airmen to use a solution, collect feedback, and iteratively improve upon the solution. This culture gap is also the source of AF CyberWorx’s biggest challenge – getting their solutions adopted into a program of record for widespread delivery and long-term sustainment.

Chiaramonte Luncheon with AFCEALt Col Chiaramonte went on to discuss several past AF CyberWorx projects as examples of the kinds of problems the program addresses, including a mobile phone app to provide precise positioning, navigation, and timing without a GPS signal, a cyber risk dashboard for non-cyber operational commanders called Cyber Risk Ecosystem, and a personnel readiness dashboard that aggregates data from disparate databases reflecting an Airman’s fitness to deploy.

To date, AF CyberWorx has partnered with over 200 companies and established 20 cooperative research and development agreements (CRADAs). Through their partner intermediary, Center for Technology, Research, and Commercialization (C-TRAC), AF CyberWorx targets for partnership small businesses and non-traditional defense contractors that can provide insight into novel or emerging technology. Using C-TRAC, a nonprofit, to do industry outreach prevents conflicts of interest between the government and its industry partners.

Lt Col Chiaramonte further expressed optimism about AF CyberWorx’s future. Their realignment under Air Combat Command’s cyber superiority portfolio will offer access to a broader range of problems and solutions while providing stronger bureaucratic support and advocacy for solution delivery into programs of record. Additionally, AF CyberWorx expects to break ground in the next few months on a new 44,000 square foot facility funded through a public-private partnership between the government and the USAFA Endowment. The new facility will include state-of-the-art labs for sophisticated prototyping, bringing together all of the cyber-related organizations at USAFA, and will be more accessible by industry partners.

The luncheon was an excellent opportunity for AF CyberWorx to engage with the local community and industry leaders while describing the culture shifts in DoD acquisition that it is leading.

How to Sprint with AF CyberWorx

You’ve been selected to attend one of AF CyberWorx’s Design Sprints. Congratulations! We are so excited to have you participate with us during our workshop; but, you will soon learn that our sprints are a little different than most workshops. Today, before attending the upcoming sprint, we’ll review what a Design Sprint is, what to expect as a participant of a Design Sprint, an example of a sprint schedule, and attendee reminders

What is a Design Sprint?

It’s a workshop event where different-minded people from militaryacademia, and industry backgrounds collaborate while working out possible solutions to a challenge. AF CyberWorx sprints develop human-centered design solutions for the modern warfighter. Design Sprints try to answer the question, “How can we deliver innovative and intuitive operational solutions to our warfighters?”

Throughout a sprint, groups of 4-6 participants partake in candid discussions and structured tactics for solving problems. Trained facilitators will guide teams through the design process and help maximize team effectiveness, ideation, and solution-crafting.

Industry participants are encouraged to challenge the mindset of the Air Force, while government collaborators provide an insight into needs and operational functions to provide a cohesive, feasible, and desirable design solution.

Participation Expectations in a Design Sprint

Design sprint participants come in with open minds. Sprints are all about sharing ideas, from wildest dreams to the most practical details. Sprint events generate a wide range of solutions through attendee collaboration and creatively explore problems and potential solutions from every angle.

What to Bring

Please bring a government-issued ID card to the campus and the event. While AF CyberWorx will provide design materials, you can still bring a laptop, tablet, or other writing materials.

How to Dress

Be sure to dress casually while attending the event. ALL participants will be in civilian attire to facilitate an open learning and design environment. Please be aware that pictures and videos will be taken during the sprint for marketing purposes. Appropriate security measures and approval processes will be followed for use of the images.

Internet

A commercial wifi will be available for use during breaks. There will be NO .mil internet or email access.

While attending, you will be very busy. Please plan to do your regular work outside of the hours posted in your sprint agenda. Working on other items will not be conducive to the collaboration atmosphere or project.

Example of a Design Sprint

Attendees can expect both breakfast and lunch to be provided if they fill out the eventbrite application beforehand. Attendees who wish to bring their own meals may store items in a refrigerator on site. A happy hour will take place offsite of the campus at 4:30 on the first day of the sprint (usually Tuesday).

Attendee Reminders

There are a few things to remember before attending a Design Sprint with AF CyberWorx.

  • Pick up your T-Badge with your welcome packet before the sprint.
  • Dress in civilian clothing.
  • Bring any additional materials you might want to use.
  • Return T-Badges to AF CyberWorx staff before leaving on the final day.

We can’t wait to see you at our next sprint! Be sure to follow us on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn, and subscribe to our emails to stay up to date on current projects and future sprints.

Deans of Service Academies Visit AF CyberWorx to Improve Sexual Assault Prevention & Response

Brig Gen Andy Armacost AF CyberWorx SAPR mini blog

Recently, the academic deans of all five service academies and US Air Force Academy (USAFA) SAPR leads visited AF CyberWorx and received their first hands-on experience with human-centered design and left to approach their respective SAPR programs with new energy. 

Participants included Brig Gen Andy Armacost, Dean of the Faculty, USAFA; Brig Gen Cindy Jebb, Dean of the Academic Board, US Military Academy; Dr. John Ballard, Academic Dean and Provost, US Merchant Marine Academy; Dr. Kurt Collela, Academic Dean, US Coast Guard Academy; Dr. Andrew Phillips, Academic Dean and Provost, US Naval Academy; Maj El-Len Serra, USAFA SAPR Subject Matter Expert; Dr. Kimberly Dickman, USAFA SAPR Lead; and Dr. Trevin Campbell, USAFA SAPR Program Manager. 

While collaborating with one another and with AF CyberWorx’s user experience (UX) team, the deans and SAPR leads addressed very human challenges with human-centered thinking. An AF CyberWorx UX facilitator lead the participants in a mini sprint that sought to answer the question, “How might the faculty and deans enhance the effectiveness of our SAPR programs?”

Mind Mapping SAPR Mini Sprint AF CyberWorxThe program began with each attendee creating a SAPR-related persona. The persona’s identity could take the shape of a victim, an instructor, a bystander, a SAPR staff member, or any other person that could be involved in a given SAPR scenario. The sprint continued with the important step of “mind mapping,” where participants identified ideas, phrases, and pain points that their personas would deal with in their journey. Next, the participants developed need statements that focused on what the selected persona needs to be successful in accomplishing their goal within the problem statement. The two teams both picked one final user needs statement to focus on during ideation. 

SAPR Mini Sprint design thinking AF CyberWorxDuring the ideation process, the top solutions participants focused on were town hall meetings, recognition of do-gooders, hiring impactful speakers, building teams for discussion opportunities, SAPR classroom focus days, training on how to incorporate myth-busting in the classroom and holding the classroom accountable for inappropriate comments/statements. These solutions aimed to improve SAPR and help prevent sexual assault in the future among all five academies. 

Finally, the teams picked their favorite solutions to further ideate into the prototyping stage. Although it was a short session, they were able to generate further ideas on how their solutions could come to fruition and help improve SAPR at each academy. 

Next steps for SAPR will be to further ideate by conducting a week-long sprint with a variety of participants that could provide the deans with more concrete paths forward. The solutions would aid in the recognition and prevention of sexual assault across all campuses. AF CyberWorx was honored to host the SAPR focus group and hopes that their newly learned human-centered design will aid them in implementation of more effective SAPR programs within their academies. 

SAPR Mini Sprint Attendees AF CyberWorx

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Flight Evaluation App Aims to Reduce Pilot Shortage

 Better Evaluation Process Leads To Better Efficiency

AF CyberWorx OPTIMIS Flight Evaluation App

There is a pilot shortage in the United States Air Force right now and part of the problem affecting pilot retention is the current evaluation process. It can take up to three months for a student pilot’s evaluation to be submitted after their evaluated flying time. Should the world’s most dominant air power be shackled to a keyboard or forced to wait on improving their aviation skills because of an outdated evaluation process?

Both evaluators and students are delayed by a prehistoric evaluation process that the Air Force uses while training pilots. What if there was a solution that got pilots more time in the cockpit and less time behind a keyboard? A computer science capstone team at USAFA plans to revamp the antiquated method of pen to paper to database evaluations with a flight training application called Optimis. 

What is the Problem?

The Air Force has exacerbated its own deficit of pilots by continuing to use an old evaluation method. Once solved, students can go from waiting weeks for their evaluation to just one day. Currently, evaluators grade students by taking notes on paper both in the air and after their flights. Evaluators then head back to the office and hand over the evaluation to a middle man who inputs the details into a web platform database. Unfortunately, this process can take months, which allows aspects from the flight to be easily forgotten by the evaluator while the student is left stagnant and unable to advance their skill set, which includes ‘use it or lose it’ knowledge.

Removing the primitive evaluation method and replacing it with a 21st-century solution will give student pilots the ability to move through the pilot pipeline faster than ever. The capstone team will streamline the evaluation processes with an iPad app that allows the instructor to evaluate the student in real time. When the instructor finishes the evaluation, they will submit the data to the cloud while retaining the ability to edit it in the future if needed. Once completed, the student pilot will be informed of their feedback and begin planning their next steps in training.

Research

AF CyberWorx OPTIMIS Test RunThe Optimis team has found a local mentor with Mind Rocket’s President, Michael Larson. Mr. Larson helped with the workflow, design, strategic overview, division of tasks, configuration management, and process to code for the app. Additionally, the capstone team has conducted user research with their main stakeholders, the pilots of the 21st Airlift Squadron at Travis AFB. These interviews taught the team about the current process and the areas for improvement at Travis AFB. 

While beta testing the application, the team utilized a group of Lieutenant pilots that had recently been students and were training to become evaluators. The Lieutenant pilots role-played as both the students and evaluators using the app. Getting the chance to watch them interact with the application in person was crucial for the team. They learned about the little details which can really make or break the success and usability of an app. Some features that needed to be addressed were button push lengths and zooming in and out by “pinching” the screen. Getting the chance to see people who have never interacted with the app really impressed upon the team the app’s functionality.

Other research has included a trip to a VR lab and an information session on how to program the application, which included both framework and coding. The team looks forward to performing more user research when they visit Travis AFB later this semester in Sacramento, CA.

The Future Solution

Vice Chief with OPTIMIS Cadet AF CyberWorx
Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Stephen W. Wilson with OPTIMIS Cadet Test-Driving App

The task load of written evaluations will disappear with the aid of Optimis, a real-time app that will solve a significant time efficiency problem. This app will free up time from administrative tasks and speed up the evaluation process for both students and evaluators. The collected data will also give the evaluators the chance to pool information together and learn where knowledge gaps exist for students. The implementation of Optimis will move a huge backlog of pilots forward with their training.

Performing in-flight evaluations with Optimis will allow the 21st Airlift Squadron to promptly grade students and create an influx of trained and ready pilots. After implementation, Optimis will better prepare the US Air Force for combat by reducing training wait times. Creating an application that will provide more man hours to dedicate to critical mission efforts is just one way our teams are designing the future of the Air Force.  


Want to stay updated on all things AF Cyberworx? Be sure to follow us on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn, and subscribe to our emails!

Capstone Team Aims High for Self-Healing Swarm

Saving Time and Most Importantly, Saving Lives

When a team of firefighters is fighting a wildfire, how can they communicate more effectively among one another and command base to best save resources, tackle their challenge, and potentially save lives? If a first responder is wounded without their medic nearby, how can resources be marshaled to help them as quickly as possible? If all cell service is lost during a natural disaster, like Hurricane Florence, how can first responders communicate with one another to get assets and personnel where they need to be?

These are just a few of the questions a project team is hoping to research and eventually co-design the technology to resolve. A team of five airmen at USAFA is working with AF CyberWorx to fill a predefined location with a swarm of drones that can self-heal and provide cellular coverage to those in need during times of crisis. The Self-Healing Drone Swarm will provide cellular network capabilities which would include sending and receiving data, text, and video. The drone team will self-correct in the face of vehicle loss due to a malfunction, collision, charging need, or signal interface.

What is the Problem?

The team’s insight gained in this project will provide a solution to many different problems. A Self-Healing Drone Swarm has the potential to aid firemen, first responders, and the public in ways that could save lives more rapidly than they can now. Imagine a life-threatening event in the field where a medic could video chat with another soldier and give him the information needed to save an injured warrior, thanks to the Self-Healing Drone Swarm providing coverage over the area.

This type of drone work hasn’t been approached in this manner before. Currently, there is no related practical application for AI and drones due to the limited battery life of drone technology. The project team is currently in the problem research phase of this project

Research Found

Recently, the team interviewed a firefighter and drone specialist with AT&T, their industry partner for this project. While speaking with the firefighter, they learned about general operations, use of radios, the problem of zero cell coverage, and FirstNet (a network available to first responders for disaster relief). A typical firefighting scenario includes a portable radio with the main dispatch channel and an ops channel around 800 MHz, while the fire chief listens to multiple channels at once. Problems usually occur within urban areas and involve the radio; so, they make due with cell communications. But, cellular is most often used as a backup because it is less convenient. Radios are designed to last longer and be more durable than cell phones.

While working with the AT&T drone specialist, the team learned more about the physical side of uploads and downloads and what might work best for DoD use. The conversation also helped the team realize the ins and outs of the user experience for their target demographic.  

The Future Solution

There is still much more research to be performed. The team plans to perform a usability test on wireframes in the near future. They will also conduct field research at a drone lab in Los Angeles, AeroVironment Headquarters. While there, they hope to see the technical side of specific drone operations, as there are many items that they still need to address.

The team will perform additional research to test their software. Their current software creates drone swarms that have differently defined radiuses to create service in a needed coverage area. The algorithm then places waypoints which the drones move to automatically in real time. The Graphical User Interface (GUI) observes the model and displays each drone as a hexagon with the number on it. It also shows the battery condition with red, yellow, and green color codes.

At the end of the project, the team hopes to launch a swarm of drones with a demonstration of 2-3 drones that can self-correct. The goal for their final solution of a Self-Healing Drone Swarm is to provide additional, meaningful capabilities that aren’t already available to first responders. The Self-Healing Drone Swarm team wants to save lives and time. The capstone project is a great representation of making an innovative Air Force stride towards future operational capabilities through AF CyberWorx.

Flight Scheduling App Team Visits F-15E Squadron For Research

As we say at AF Cyberworx, “If it doesn’t work for people, it doesn’t work.” Recently, a team of cadets working on a Flight Scheduling App visited a fighter squadron at Seymour-Johnson Air Force Base (AFB) in North Carolina. This trip to Seymour-Johnson helped the team shape their understanding of the problem, which will enable them to create a deliverable that drives to save flight schedulers time and effort, and results in fewer aborted flights. The project is in collaboration with Air Combat Command, Defense Innovation Unit, US Marine Corps, US Navy, and Microsoft.

While at Seymour-Johnson, the team interviewed some of the key actors in the flight scheduling process — schedulers, trainers, maintenance crew, etc. — to gain insights that will hopefully help them improve the user experience, build better profiles, and create a better solution with their app than they are currently using.

Understanding the Right Lingo & Functions

Before the team could jump into their interviews, tour, or simulations, they had to learn the correct language and use of acronyms. The Captain leading them on their educational journey introduced them to the basic flow of the syllabus and acronyms that would most likely be used through the day. Priority of the different squadrons and their functions were also explained in detail to the cadets. This included the yearly flight overlay, different types of flights that take place during training time, and even a history of the F-15E. All of this is important information for the team to learn before digging into the difficult task at hand: learning how an app can maximize flight schedulers’ time and user experience.

Hands-On Experience 

The team learned how to schedule airspace with a SSgt who had previously worked with four F-15E squadrons on base. A map provided showed the usable airspace available for the Seymour-Johnson AFB pilots and how it is allocated and distributed. The SSgt told the team about the typical challenges he deals with and a provided them a walkthrough on how to schedule airspace.

Airmen

The team then took a tour through the hangars and F-15Es while chatting with the maintainers. A MSgt maintainer explained the requirements he must meet, what happens when they are not met, how he receives his information and where he must send it next. The team also learned about maintenance timelines for the F-15E fleet.

Lastly, the team had the chance to go to a Virtual Reality (VR)/Flight Simulator Lab where they were able to experience being in the cockpit of an F-15E during different flying scenarios through VR. Some scenarios included the jet being refueled from within the cockpit, an F-15E takeoff, crash, and landing.

The Problem to be Solved

Getting to know the current process for flight schedulers was a key component for the project team. Some key takeaways involved the arduous manual scheduling process, weather-related challenges, and human factors considerations. The team will rigorously research these obstacles and design a solution to either eliminate or improve the experience.    

Airmen using simulators

After having the chance to research the scheduling process and interview flight schedulers and maintainers, the team now has a better understanding of what their future app should aim to improve. Understanding the needs of the users is an important first step in building a solution that will fit the needs of the human using them. Be sure to follow future blog updates on the Flight Scheduling App!

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