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Creating an innovation ecosystem (Part 2): Innovation Lab opens as Airmen’s ‘Jedi Temple’

Master Sgt. Robert, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Operations section chief, 9th Intelligence Squadron, uses a virtual reality headset in the innovation lab at Beale Air Force Base, California, July 26, 2017.

Master Sgt. Robert, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Operations section chief, 9th Intelligence Squadron, uses a virtual reality headset in the innovation lab at Beale Air Force Base, California, July 26, 2017. One of the main uses for VR technology is to provide a hands-on, realistic training environment for Airmen working in the intelligence career field. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Lauren Parsons/Released)

Airman 1st Class Mark (left), 13th Intelligence Squadron geospatial imagery analyst, uses Tilt Brush, a virtual reality program, to draw and paint in the innovation lab as Airman 1st Class Justin and Airman 1st Class Charles, 13 IS geospatial imagery analysts, view his creation at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., July 26, 2017.

Airman 1st Class Mark (left), 13th Intelligence Squadron geospatial imagery analyst, uses Tilt Brush, a virtual reality program, to draw and paint in the innovation lab as Airman 1st Class Justin and Airman 1st Class Charles, 13 IS geospatial imagery analysts, view his creation at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., July 26, 2017. The innovation lab opened July 21 and was modeled after creative spaces located in Silicon Valley, which is recognized as a major tech capital of the world, and will include VR, computers with commercial internet service and a 3D printer. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Lauren Parsons/Released)

Col. Jason M. Brown (center), 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing commander, holds a 3D-printed tank.

Col. Jason M. Brown (center), 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing commander, holds a 3D-printed tank while discussing the benefits of 3D printers with Col. Scott J. Nahrgang, 548th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group commander; the Innovation Lab team and executives from the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental at Beale Air Force Base, California, July 26, 2017. The innovation lab is the first of its kind in the wing and was created to allow Airmen to solve problems and build creative solutions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Lauren Parsons)

BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --

Located in the 548th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group building is a room unlike any other across the 480th ISR Wing.

Turquoise paint covers one wall, while multi-colored chalk lays on a table, left over from decorating an adjacent blue chalkboard wall with inspirational quotes and off-the-cuff ideas - a break from the typical naked, neutral-colored walls found in Air Force buildings.

On the turquoise wall is a mural adorned with “Star Wars” aircraft, complemented by a quote: “Do or do not, there is no try,” by Yoda, the legendary Jedi master from the franchise.

A fitting theme for this new and innovative space, because just as Yoda and the other Jedi had their own sanctuary to train in to become masters of the Force, Airmen at Beale Air Force Base have a place to learn, innovate and be creative. They have the Innovation Lab, their very own ‘Jedi Temple.’

The Innovation Lab is the second addition the 548th ISRG has made to achieve the initiative of creating an innovation ecosystem. The first was acquiring virtual reality headsets.

“The space (lab) is important - a space that looks different than everywhere else,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Jason M. Brown, 480th ISR Wing commander. “Psychologically, you’re drawn to the difference, and ideally, that affects how you think and how you create, and that was kind of the point.”

The idea to create an innovation lab came at the direction of Brown, and the lab’s layout was refined after a 548th ISRG team visited various creative labs in Silicon Valley.

The reason we go to Silicon Valley is because they’re the brains, they’re at the forefront of technology,” said 1st Lt. Amelia, 13th Intelligence Squadron Mission Operations commander. “Col. Brown’s vision is to integrate companies from there to implement these algorithms.”

In order for concepts to really take root, Brown said ideas need to originate from the Airmen, and in their own space.

“If we want to have ideas that Airmen buy into, that are practical and effective in accomplishing the mission, they have to be, as we like to say, bottom-up ideas,” said Brown. “In other words, the people who work the mission day-in and day-out need to be the ones who are generating the ideas.”

Brown said he hopes the lab will encourage a less-bureaucratic approach and create a culture no longer expected to just deal with problems but instead, to create solutions to problems.

“How do we reconcile that (less bureaucracy) with the fact that we’re a military unit with a mission?” Brown asked. “I don’t think those things are opposed to each other. I think you can wear a uniform, you can follow customs and courtesies, you can comply with the regulations you need to comply with, and still be an entrepreneur. I think those things can actually fit well together.  In fact, they have to.”

To achieve that end, the Innovation Lab is hosted in an unclassified area which features commercial internet service, which simplifies exchanging ideas.

“The fact that we have an unclassified space where any contractor can come visit us or help build any algorithm is going to be crucial,” said Amelia. “We can build it a lot faster.”

The lab also gives Airmen a mental break from the mission and serves as an added boost to morale, said Brown.

“We have this ongoing mission that’s nonstop, 24/7/365, and it’s been that way for many years,” he said. “What that results in is a tendency for people to get on auto pilot mentally.”

He said the goal is to implement an 80/20 initiative which will allow a crew of Airmen to go into a dwell- state for 20 percent of their year, calling the Innovation Lab their primary duty location during that time.

“If we do this right, they’ll be excited to get back on mission,” Brown said. “They’ll be excited about the things they learned about each other, about the things they innovated and about the new things they want to try.”

Senior Master Sgt. Joseph, 13th IS Group Acquisitions, Innovation and Technology superintendent and Innovation Lab team member, said the lab is proof Airmen’s ideas aren’t being taken for granted and it’s representative of the direction the Air Force is going.

“The lab is really symbolic of something we haven’t done before, and it’s symbolic of where we’re headed,” Joseph said. “We’re no longer going to accept red tape when it’s in the way of innovation.”

Amelia added, it’s the first time she’s had Airmen approach her and say they’re excited that leadership followed through with innovative changes.  

“I’ve brought some of the Airmen down to see the Innovation Lab, and they’re excited because they’re seeing tangible results, and that innovation is not a buzz word,” she said. “Now they’re thinking creatively, like, ‘What can I do to utilize that space?’ They believe now that leadership is listening to their ideas.”

Although Brown said ideas should be bottom-up, the empowerment to do so began at the top.

Just after Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein was sworn in, he wrote a letter to all Airmen that stated the Air Force would need to integrate its advantages in air, space and cyber in new, effective ways if it wanted to continue to outperform its adversaries. In a separate letter, Goldfein said the Air Force must revitalize its squadrons because, "squadrons are the engines of innovation and esprit de corps."

That’s exactly what Brown and the Innovation Lab team are aiming to achieve.

I have no doubt that he (Goldfein) believes fundamentally that we’re going to win or lose by out-innovating our adversaries,” Brown said. “And, is there anyone more innovative than these Airmen? No chance -- as long as we give them the time, space and resources.”