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Innovation is for everyone

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Eric Elias Flores
  • Pacific Air Forces Public Affairs

The innovation team from the 347th Airlift Wing at Yokota Air Base won the Department of the Air Force's capstone innovation campaign "Spark Tank" at the Air and Space Forces Association Warfare Symposium in Aurora, Colorado on March 8, 2023.

The winning idea, combining ground-penetrating radar and augmented reality to solve a problem faced by civil engineer units, was proposed by Lt. Col. Mark Wagner, Master Sgt. Sarah Hubert, and Tech. Sgt. Raymond Zgoda. The group's success was notable due to the diversity of its members' backgrounds. Hubert, who serves as the superintendent for religious affairs, brought a distinct perspective to the table, highlighting that innovation can come from various Air Force Specialty Codes (AFSC).

Hubert led the development of the winning idea based on her experience visiting CE units and hearing about their problems accidentally hitting pipes underground while digging because they had no way of knowing where they were located.

In June 2022, the Spark Cell attended a trade show featuring various technologies, including virtual reality, additive manufacturing, aviation technology, biosciences, and more. According to Wagner, commander of the 374th Contracting Squadron and Senior Mentor of Yokota's Spark Cell, it was at this event where the technology for the winning idea was discovered. “We met this company that was marrying two technologies: the ground-penetrating radar and augmented reality. We've never seen that before, it's a new technology that they're working on,” said Wagner.

Hubert saw the potential of this technology as a solution to the problem she had heard about from her previous visits to CE units. She then reached out to and met with Zgoda, the 374th Civil Engineer Squadron Pavements & Equipment Section Chief with experience on these issues, to develop the idea further. “A lot of times, innovation is approached by asking 'what are your problems? We'll fix them.' But sometimes I don't even know what my problems are. This problem we have with pipes was a way of life. It's just something we learned to live with." Zgoda added.

This perspective gave Hubert the drive to expand her idea beyond what she had originally envisioned. “It started out smaller in scope. But as we met, and I learned more about Tech. Sgt Zgoda’s troubles here and what the CE community goes through, the idea just kind of blossomed,” said Hubert.

Wagner emphasized that innovation is not limited to any particular career field. "Let's expose a wide variety of Airmen to a wide variety of emerging technologies. We really don't want to say, ‘well, that's not your AFSC’. We want innovation to be unbounded and let ideas flourish however they can evolve." Hubert and Zgoda put this philosophy into action as they continued to develop their idea. “Anybody from any career field can look at technology and find an application on base,” said Hubert.

Out of the 235 submitted ideas to the Guardians and Airmen Innovation Network, the top 15 were evaluated and presented for voting by Department of the Air Force members. Ultimately, six finalists were chosen to present their ideas at AFA and of those six, Wagner, Hubert, and Zgoda took home the top prize.

The team's idea demonstrates innovation can exist outside of any Air Force job, and that everyone can contribute to finding solutions to problems faced by different career fields. It also highlights the importance of recognizing emerging technologies that can benefit the Air Force.

"I think this could be a case study as to how the Air Force should approach innovation," said Zgoda.