What if there was a sector of the U.S. Air Force that was designed around the goal of fostering a culture of innovation and problem solving? And what if this sector operated by bringing in technologies that would directly benefit the warfighter and provide solutions to current problems? And what if such a technology already exists—“Spark Cells”—and it’s already making a huge impact on military innovation, particularly as it pertains to small business commercial technologies entering the federal space.
On the other hand, what if many of the technologies that could have a major impact don’t even know these exist?
This is where we are. The Air Force has made huge strides with this program to recognize this immense need for innovation and problem solving—and not enough companies know the value it can provide.
We hope to change that.
What Are Spark Cells?
It’s important to first note that Spark Cells are not a new concept. However, the term has gained momentum and recognition in recent years, especially after the launch of AFWERX, the Air Force’s innovation arm, in 2017.
“It’s really grassroots innovation headed up by East Installation,” said current Long Capture employee, and former AFWERX Spark Coordinator, Warner (DC) Paredes. “The Spark cells are owned by their Wing Commander. So it’s innovation at the end-user level, pushing up the best solutions developed by the airmen themselves.” This empowers airmen to identify and execute locally generated ideas and projects that can improve their mission effectiveness, efficiency, and quality of life.
Where and How Do Spark Cells Function?
Each unit receives autonomy in the development of their own program, which causes each to be different from another.
With that said, the number and function of Spark Cells are continually changing.
“The number’s always growing. It’s variable. So spark cells are owned again at the wing level, so they are born and die as needed,” said Paredes. “We kind of, we don’t have direct command and control of them. We’re more of advisors.”
In most cases, they are there to try and regularly assess and determine what the best option is in terms of assisting their specific installation. That said, they are usually focused at the local level as far as their base, but they do have ties and network that reach out across the Air Force.
Because of their nature, they tend to be very small teams. In some cases, the whole unit can be made up of just one person, or it could be a group of 10 people, depending on the base.
How Are Spark Cells Beneficial to Small Businesses Pursuing Federal Funding?
Spark Cells are not only beneficial to the Air Force, but also to the airmen themselves. They provide opportunities for professional development, personal growth, and recognition. They also foster a sense of ownership, collaboration, and creativity among the airmen who participate in them.
“CPI, continuous process improvement, Lean 6 Sigma methodologies, their charge is to also onboard innovation into their programs and projects. But due to customer demand, it was identified that they were not doing probably as much as they could or should have,” Paredes says. “So that’s why the Spark community grew so rapidly. It’s because the airmen took it upon themselves to kind of start.”
Some examples of successful Spark Cell projects include the following:
- The 60th Air Mobility Wing at Travis Air Force Base, California, developed a 3D-printed part that reduced the cost and time of repairing the C-5M Super Galaxy aircraft by 99 percent;
- The 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath, United Kingdom, created a virtual reality simulator that enhanced the training and readiness of F-15E Strike Eagle pilots and weapon systems officers;
- The 366th Fighter Wing at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, implemented a smart base initiative that leveraged artificial intelligence, the internet of things, and blockchain technologies to optimize base operations and security.
“There’s different ways to look at a spark cell, and I think, depending on the angle you are wanting to use them for, the benefits will change,” Paredes adds. “But in general, I think the Spark Cell is usually comprised of a team of outside-the-box thinkers that want to help all the airmen on the base, right, and not just a specific mission set or not a specific program.”
Spark Cells are a testament to the Air Force’s commitment to innovation and adaptation in a rapidly changing world. They are a way for the Air Force to harness the talent and potential of its most valuable asset: its people.