Resurrection: A Story About Not Giving Up

By: LTJG Rob McClenning

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When I won the Admiral Sims Award for Intellectual Courage at Athena 2 with the idea of developing Environmental Acoustic Recognition System (EARS), I can confidently say I was the most surprised person there.

In my mind, EARS was at best a mediocre idea, at worst it was blatant stealing from the Army. While history is full great innovators with “Eureka!” moments, EARS was born out of frustration and fear. Being on the bridge of a billion dollar warship with fog so thick you cannot see the bow, and your best bet to avoid collision is a Deck Seaman who is vaguely familiar with sound signals.

It’s enough to make even the youngest Ensign start sprouting gray hairs.

The basic concept of EARS is to take Army counter sniper technology and place it on warships to detect sound signals in low visibility environments as well as detect engines of small craft that are too small to be picked up on radar and that may not be visible to the bridge watchstanders. The Navy’s current remedy to low visibility is to open the bridge wing doors and place Deck Seamen and Supply Department Sailors topside to relay the sounds they hear to the bridge. Basically it’s like driving blind down a highway, while your friend sticks their head out the window to listen for the cars.

Most of the research for my initial EARS pitch was based off of the Army’s Boomerang project. Boomerang is an array of 8 microphones placed on the back of a humvee. When the humvee takes incoming fire, the Boomerang system uses the differentiating pressure waves on each microphone and projects the direction and estimated range of the shooter. This is information is then displayed inside to the driver.

The Army's Boomerang system.

The Army’s Boomerang system.

With some simple reprogramming of the sounds being detected, I believe Boomerang could easily be installed on ships as a boon to the bridge watchstanders. After my less than spectacular victory speech I was approached by several engineers from the University of Southern California Institute of Creative Technologies to discuss various ways to do a proof of concept and possible prototype. We were all very excited to get to work right away and really make a difference.

After two months of emailing back and forth, Dave Nobles and myself received the beginnings of EARS. USC had successfully completed proof of concept with two Xbox Kinects and a cell phone. The bad news was they did not have the funding to continue any further development. Undaunted with the set back I pressed on, surely there was someone willing to back an Athena winner?

I decided to email the makers of the Boomerang system directly. There was no better choice than the people who actually made the equipment that EARS was based on, plus if it worked, they could make a profit by selling it to the Navy. However, Raytheon did not respond to my first email, or my second, or even my third. At this point, a year had passed since EARS had won Athena 2. Despite my best efforts and some mild interest, it seemed as if EARS was dead.

EARS was running out of options and it looked like it was going to die on the vine.

EARS was running out of options and it looked like it was going to die on the vine.

Another year passed with no hope of EARS being developed. I had transferred from BENFOLD and was working at COMNAVSURFPAC as the NFAAS coordinator. One day out of the blue I received an email from Bill Hughes, who served as the Navigator on BENFOLD. Now working at the Pentagon, Bill said he saw a presentation that I might be interested in.

Opening the attachment, I read through brief from the Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center (AMRDEC), on a system called FireFly. FireFly is essentially the Army’s own version of Boomerang, but better. ARMDEC added a camera as well as made the whole platform much more mobile. I decided to reach out to the Army PAO listed and see if AMRDEC had any interest in converting their equipment to maritime use.

After a few weeks of no response, I finally received an email from Dr. Tim Edwards, who works as the Chief Scientist for the FireFly project. Not only were they interested, but they had been actively seeking ways to break into the maritime community. We quickly setup a phone conference to get a feel what were working with. I was stunned by the amount of enthusiasm that Dr. Edwards and his team brought to the table. Dr. Edwards was able to allocate additional funding towards developing FireFly specifically for shipboard use, and he even offered to send a FireFly to me. Being a LTJG with no ship I had to unfortunately decline.

We continued to bounce ideas back and forth and since then we have reached out to several scientists at SPAWAR. Now we are attempting to coordinate with the Chief Science Advisor at COMNAVSURFPAC to find a test platform for FireFly. Meanwhile Dr. Edwards and his team are continuing to test FireFly with various small boat engines, and so far the results are promising.

While some ideas will naturally gain greater interest, it’s important as an innovator to keep pressing forward. Even if you win, the hard work is just starting. As painful a lesson as it is, in the Navy we know getting a new piece of equipment takes time. Even though Athena is taking great strides to speed up the process, it still takes time, sometimes months, and sometimes years. But any change that is truly worth while is worth the effort.

So EARS isn’t dead, not by a long shot, it just changed its name.

LTJG Rob McClenning is the Prospective Training Officer onboard the guided missile destroyer USS GRIDLEY, homeported out of San Diego, California. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri.

Athena East 2.0 is right around the corner, October 2nd in Norfolk! Connect with The Athena Project on Facebook: www.facebook.com/athenanavy or follow us on Twitter: @AthenaNavy.

Interested in starting a movement of your own? Message us, or e-mail athenanavy@gmail.com!

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Waterfront Athena is a Week Away!

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Greetings, Athenians!

On May 30th in the warm confines of San Diego, USS BENFOLD (DDG 65) will be hosting the fifth Waterfront Athena Project event at Societe Brewing Company.  We’ll gather at noon and kick off presentations after everyone’s had a chance to mingle and grab their beverage of choice.

Everyone is invited to this casual forum, whether it’s just to attend and vote on Sailors’ projects, or to present an idea of your own. For those of you new to this site, or unfamiliar with Athena, here’s a rundown of how it works:

The Athena Project is basically a Shark Tank-meets-TED Talks event that showcases deckplate ideas and innovations from the Fleet, giving Sailors a voice and connecting concepts with scientists and engineers from industry who may be able to help them come to life. Presenters are given five minutes to make their pitch – usually including the problem they’ve identified, a creative solution to remedy it, and a plan to make it happen. After that pitch, there’s a five-minute question-and-answer session from the Athenians in the crowd, who then vote on the ideas based on Idea Quality, Actionability and Presentation. At the end, we’ll tally the votes and crown the winner of the Admiral Sims Award for Intellectual Courage – a title that earns Athena support to make the idea happen over the next quarter.

For pitches, prototypes and visuals (posters, pamphlets, etc.) are certainly encouraged, but there’s NO POWERPOINT allowed. And for anyone interested in pitching an idea, registration is still open, just e-mail ATHENA@ddg65.navy.mil or message us on Facebook or Twitter (@AthenaNavy).

Automated celestial navigation - coming soon to a ship near you!

Automated celestial navigation – coming soon to a ship near you!

Ideas from previous Athena events are really taking off, which is part of the magic of The Athena Project.  Several concepts have been prototyped by our friends at Lockheed Martin, SPAWAR and the University of Southern California Institute of Creative Technologies to name a few, and we have a few ideas that have gained funding to be created, including CosmoGator – a FY15 CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell project – and the Optical Database and Information Network (ODIN), the winning idea from Waterfront Athena Three. Other Sims Award-winning concepts, such as PartnerShips from Waterfront Athena Four, are going live soon.

Unlike some innovation initiatives in the Department of Defense and beyond, ideas pitched at Athena actually go somewhere, and the bridges that we’ve built through this project are strong enough to support the wait of a bevy of brilliant ideas to come. For Waterfront Athena Five, we’ll have boatloads (pun intended) of folks from cutting-edge technology, energy, academic and defense organizations in attendance, so who knows: Maybe your idea will be then next to take off!

That said, the greatest part about The Athena Project is not the shiny widgets that come from it, but rather the growing culture of creativity fostered through our Athenians. It’s always been the goal of Athena to build a cadre of creative (sometimes disruptive) thinkers who can solve problems in unique ways. With this cadre of bold, forward thinkers, we can make the Navy better.

As John Ruskin once famously said: “The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.” 

So, I’ll leave you with a call to arms: Come join us! Present your big ideas (or your small solutions that have been hiding in plain sight) and be a part of the movement for a more innovative Fleet. If you don’t have an idea this time around, that’s cool too: At least some and connect for some creative thought, awesome ideas and great food and drink!

See you there!

 

 

Waterfront Athena Roundup

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Last Thursday afternoon at Ballast Point Brewing’s Little Italy location, creative minds from across the Navy and Industry got together to share some big ideas.

This was our fourth Waterfront Athena Event and we had our best turnout yet! There were about 75 innovators in attendance in the San Diego sun, braving the elements (and the occasional noise of planes passing overhead) to hear nine presentations aimed at making the Navy better. For a quick rundown of how Athena works, check here.

From the Navy side, 20 commands were represented, including the Chief of Naval Operations’ Rapid Innovation Cell, a cadre of young Sailors and junior officers across designators and communities that are eager to create a new culture within the Navy. With tremendous support from San Diego’s Basic Division Officer Course (BDOC), many other young officers took in the event, geared to spread the culture of creativity across the fleet.

Beyond the Navy complement at Waterfront Athena, civilians from industry, academia and government joined in the action. In attendance, we had our old friends from the University of Southern California Institute of Creative Technologies, SPAWAR and Harris Corporation, but also new friends from Lockheed Martin, CUBIC Corporation, Navy Undersea Warfare Center,iENCON, NASA, GovAlert and more. It truly was an amazing network of thinkers, doers, dreamers and makers and made for our best event ever.

Some of the Waterfront Athena crowd, escaping the sun and listening to the pitches.

Some of the Waterfront Athena crowd, escaping the sun and listening to the pitches.

In addition to the nine great ideas that our Athenians presented, the audience was treated to a halftime display of 3D printing and advancements in the development of LT Bill Hughes’ project from the last Waterfront Athena, CosmoGator, from Matt Reyes of the NASA Ames Research Center. Reyes showcased low cost solutions using additive manufacturing. And, just to show how quick and easy the system truly is, Reyes printed a iPhone 4 case on site.

Matt Reyes showcasing a possible new direction for CosmoGator.

Matt Reyes showcasing a possible new direction for CosmoGator.

But enough of who was there, let’s get down to the ideas:

Idea 1: Veterans Emloyment Transition Software – FCC(SW) Christopher Roberts

While attending transition courses in preparation for the plunge into Corporate America, FCC Roberts became frustrated with the current catalog of tools that veterans could use to find the right job and decided to take matters into his own hands.  He pitched a program, the Veterans Employment Transition Software (VETS) wherein the system is stood on its head: Instead of veterans finding jobs, the jobs find the veterans. In his vision, a veteran would input personal information and experience, and the VETS program, with participation from potential employers, would more efficiently pair up jobs with the seeker. Metrics like primary duties, collateral duties, education, sea/shore commands and performance evaluations would lend to smarter placement. To FCC Roberts, there’s no reason why our experienced military servicemembers should be confined to a job that didn’t suit them and allow them to use their unique talents to flourish.

Idea 2: Re-Usable Packaging – LTJG Isaac Wang

LTJG Wang, a three-time Athena presenter, partnered with entrepreneurs in the San Diego area to propose a smarter way to store critical parts and devices, prevent dangerous electro-static discharge and save money using new storage containers and reverse logistics. He proposed using demonstrated products and processes that have already saved many leading-edge businesses in today’s Fleet.

Idea 3: Tankless Water Heaters – ENS Tomas Baker

Our Third Place finisher and Oregon State University graduate proposed a smarter way to heat the water that ships use. As currently designed, Navy ships are highly inefficient in the way they heat and distribute water throughout a ship. Almost 1,000 gallons of water are constantly heated and pumped through thousands of feet of piping waiting to be used, whether the crew is sleeping at home or washing dishes at sea. Baker proposed utilizing commercially-available “Flash Hot Water Heaters” to instantly heat water without the need for a water tank. These systems eliminate intrusive piping and save boatloads of energy, money, and maintenance man-hours. Engineers from iENCON immediately connected with Baker’s concept and began working right then and there on a plan for testing across the waterfront.

Idea 4: 3D Printing used for Material Validations – CMDCM(SW) Sean Snyder

A game-day entry, CMDCM Snyder proposed using visual recognition software resident on mobile devices to revolutionize equipment validations and parts replacements for shipboard systems. CMC Snyder considered naval application of this technology after watching his kids use image recognition applications. With more and more digital natives joining the Fleet, he sees fertile ground for Sailors to use their cameras to take a picture of a broken piece of gear, filter it through a local database to recognize the system and part, then forwarding the image to a shore-based or local site where the faulty part could be printed using additive manufacturing. In his vision, pictures of equipment could be catalogued and used to help ensure that maintenance men get the right part every time.

Idea 5: MILES technology for Navy Training – ETC(SW) Michael Lewisson

The runner up for the Admiral Sims Award, ETC Lewisson proposed the use of the Army’s Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (MILES) for shipboard training. Currently, anti-terrorism/force protection drills are conducted using rubber weapons and generally have Sailors yelling “bang, bang!” at each other to simulate an engagement. ETC joked that this system was awesome on the playground, but doesn’t have a place onboard a warship. By using MILES, which is a super-whamadyne laser tag system, trainers and trainees would be able to assess multiple metrics, including shot count, accuracy and decision-making delay to improve overall training. Further, Lewisson said that the system would lend itself well to integration across training teams, such as medical, damage control and combat systems. The MILES system is already a program of record and as such, would only be marginally difficult to transition to the surface fleet, Lewisson said. Representatives from the CUBIC Corporation in attendance agreed with Lewisson’s vision and are already working to find a way to incorporate the system for shipboard use.

FCC Roberts pitching his VETS idea

FCC Roberts pitching his VETS idea

Idea 6: Virtual Reality for CIC Watchstanders – GMC(SW) Kyle Zimmerman

An idea from a recent “Learn Warfighter Needs Workshop” at SPAWAR (you can read all about it in our summary here) GMC Zimmerman, in concert with FCC(SW) Barry Adams and SPAWAR Scientists dreamed up a system whereby watchstanders in a ship’s Combat Information Center (CIC) could make use of existing virtual reality technology and the ship’s optical sensors to assist in building a recognized maritime picture of all other surface ships in a warship’s vicinity. Todd Richmond of USC’s Institute of Creative Technologies and Josh Kvavle of SPAWAR joined forces with GMC Zimmerman during his pitch, lending the power of the brilliant minds at their organizations to Zimmerman’s lofty vision.

Idea 7: Software Systems Integration – CTT2(SW) Anna Nothnagel

Formerly of the aviation community, the newly minted Cryptologic Technician – Technical pitched the need to adopt innovations from the aviation side of the house to improve software integration as it related to maintenance, replacement part ordering, administration, training and more. CTT2 Nothnagel proposed one streamlined system on a mobile device to change the way maintenance is done in the Navy. Maintenance workers would have their lives simplified and it would allow for optimized tracking of maintenance hours and decrease the need for frivolous spot checks, Nothnagel said. The project caught the eye of CRICster LT Rollie Wicks who has been working a similar project on the East Coast for his community. The two connected and are working to find a way forward for Nothnagel’s idea.

Idea 8: Logic Training for Sailors – ET2(SW) Erika Johnson

In her pitch, ET2 Johnson proposed teaching courses on logic to enhance Sailor decision making.  Johnson, a two-time Athena presenter, proposed testing the effect of her concept on a single surface ship – measuring the improvement in Sailors’ logic skills prior to and following a series of instructional sessions on the discipline. If successful, Johnson would pursue earlier implementation of the courses, in basic training for enlisted Sailors and officers alike. Teaching logic to Sailors would not only assist them in tactical and operational-level decision making, but also off-duty decision making, potentially reducing the number of destructive decisions that can sometimes plague junior Sailors.

Idea 9: PartnerShips – LTJG Kaitlin O’Donnell and LT Dave Nobles

Last but not least, the Admiral Sims Award for Intellectual Courage goes to regular contributors to this blog and Waterfront Athena Events, LTJG O’Donnell and LT Nobles. The pair proposed starting a website-based system that would serve to connect Sailors and Scientists to build a foundation of knowledge between the two sides, bridging knowledge gaps and fostering new networks and alliances. After a hugely successful “Learn Warfighter Needs Workshop” between SPAWAR and USS BENFOLD (DDG 65) wherein Sailors and Scientists connected through learning, design thinking and ideation.

The Admiral Sims Winners! PartnerShips!

The Admiral Sims Winners! PartnerShips!

With such a strong event, the two officers developed a way to lay a base-coat of continuous learning between the two sides, and proposed that the growth of familiarity could potentially lead to incredible ideas and increased job satisfaction. On the proposed website, a Sailor or Scientist would fill out a survey with questions on experience level, education and interests, and the PartnerShips team would link up users for a professional “pen pal-like” relationship. Over the course of the PartnerShip, the two parties would host monthly tours, exchange weekly e-mails and eventually attend join-ups to strengthen ties, all while feeding their experiences back to the PartnerShips homepage. The two did not waste any time waiting for the site to be built, though. They had signup sheets for Sailors and Scientists that were interested in the program to fill out on site. In the initial salvo, over 20 innovators signed up!

At The Athena Project we’re constantly humbled by the support that our initiative has received both from the fleet and from industry. It’s amazing to think that what started as an unfortunately-named experiment called WikiWardroom has blossomed into a stage for Sailors to have their voices heard by tremendous companies and makers from across the private sector and academia. Thank you to everyone who participated in this event and we can’t wait to see you guys at our next one!

If you can’t make it out to San Diego, then break down some doors and start an Athena Project of your own! We’re more than happy to help any organization that wants to use the Athena construct as a means to slingshot ideas into the stratosphere!

Stay tuned – We aren’t stopping anytime soon and we’ve got some big plans coming for Athena to help further build the growing wave of creativity in the Navy!

Connect with The Athena Project on Facebook: www.facebook.com/athenanavy or follow us on Twitter: @AthenaNavy. Interested in starting a movement of your own? Message us, or e-mail ATHENA@ddg65.navy.mil!