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Air Force innovation prizes make cents in budget era

Creation of new U.S. military technologies need not die just because the Pentagon faces budget cuts. The Air Force has begun finding great success by offering modest prizes worth thousands of dollars to attract crowdsourced solutions from innovators it might never reach otherwise.
Image: U.S. military drop zone survey, Haiti
U.S. Air Force combat controllers and U.S. Army pathfinders conduct a drop zone survey outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 24, 2010, during Operation Unified Response in a U.S. Navy HH-60 Seahawk helicopter.U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock
/ Source: InnovationNewsDaily.com

Creation of new U.S. military technologies need not die just because the Pentagon faces budget cuts. The Air Force has begun finding great success by offering modest prizes worth thousands of dollars to attract crowdsourced solutions from innovators it might never reach otherwise.

Two of the Air Force Research Laboratory's latest crowdsourcing challenges, called "Vehicle Stopper" and "Humanitarian Air Drop," led to winning solutions from both working and retired engineers in Peru, Indonesia and the Netherlands. The winners are among more than 250,000 people registered on the crowdsourcing, open innovation website called Innocentive.

"In both cases, the solvers were likely people who wouldn't have even known about the problem," said Jon Fredrickson, vice president of for government practice at Innocentive. "The solutions they came up with also probably wouldn't have been found through traditional means."

The Vehicle Stopper challenge looked for ways to stop a fleeing vehicle without causing permanent damage or injuring its occupants. The winning solution came from Dante Barbis, a retired 66-year-old mechanical engineer from Lima, Peru, who suggested an electric, remote-controlled robotic vehicle capable of accelerating to 130 mph within three seconds to catch up to a fleeing vehicle, deploying an airbag underneath to lift the car off the ground, and then slowing to a stop.

The second challenge, Humanitarian Air Drop, needed a way to drop huge amounts of food and water packages from an aircraft without injuring anyone on the ground. The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) ended up choosing two winners: Agung Nuswantoro, a self-employed engineer from Tangerang City in the Republic of Indonesia, and Siepko Bekkering, an engineer working for an international engineering consulting firm in the Netherlands.

"Both had uniquely different pieces that, when combined, provided the solution AFRL was looking for," Fredrickson told InnovationNewsDaily.

Nuswantoro proposed a powered conveyer system where different food or water items could have separate timed releases based on changing information up to the point of drop. Bekkering suggested a modular container system on rollers, as well as a chute that could move the contents of containers past the wake vortex caused by an aircraft's open ramp in flight.

The Air Force Research Laboratory has already started building prototypes based on the winning solutions. It has also just posted a new challenge, worth $15,000 in prize money, for anyone who can find a better way for U.S. Special Forces to slide down ropes from helicopters.

Past efforts by the Air Force to use crowdsourcing and prize-based challenges hadn't worked so well. Innocentive changed all that because it offered a huge existing network of problem-solvers, and also helped the Air Force to draft challenges and prizes in ways that attract people.

For instance, offering too small a reward is an obvious problem, but large rewards can also scare away people who assume the challenge requires more than they can contribute, Frederickson explained. Getting the reward amount just right makes everybody happy.

"I think AFRL — and the government in general — is looking at what we do as uniquely cost-effective in an era when, whether you're on the right or left side of the Hill in Washington, the focus on spending is important," Frederickson said.

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