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Innovation challenges were once a budding idea within the Defense Department, a fun way to listen to ideas within a community and award some cash for cool products that could help agencies.
But now, after changes to sexual assault and harassment policies, an app that helps soldiers book ranges, aids for loading ammunition and gadgets to save energy, it seems like Shark Tank-like innovation challenges and the products they produce are here stay.
There’s Spark Tank, STEAM Tank, the Maneuver Innovation Challenge, Dragon’s Lair, the Maintenance Innovation Challenge, Pitch Days, the Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Innovation Challenge, Inventors Sprints, Innovation Discovery and plenty more.
“People out there have ideas,” said Brig. Gen. Robert Ritchie in 2020 when he was assistant commanding general of the Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps, which hosts the Dragon’s Liar Challenge. “They see inefficiencies in their everyday lives and they develop solutions. Unfortunately, these ideas are captive to the Army system. Let’s unchain the animal spirits of ideas and let them roam in the wild!”
That excitement and production has spurred two more military organizations are jumping on the bandwagon and putting their most creative thinkers up to face a panel of judges, who will ultimately award cash to build out big ideas.
U.S. Central Command, the organization in charge of military operations in the Middle East, is starting its first-ever Innovation Oasis. It’s probably not too surprising that the command is embracing the idea. CENTCOM chief Gen. Erik Kurilla previously headed the XVIII Airborne Corps, which has had several iterations of innovation challenges.
CENTCOM is simply looking for new ideas. The Innovation Oasis isn’t giving out a specific directive for what innovations it wants to see, it’s keeping the field wide open. The five best ideas will go before a panel on Oct. 12.
“In the military we sometimes think of innovation as a function that we sprinkle on top of our plans once they’re developed, or this function that comes in as we’re developing a new idea,” Col. Joe Buccino, who heads the Oasis Innovation program and formerly headed Dragon’s Liar, told reporters Thursday. “That’s not going to work. Innovation has to be part of who we are.”
Judges will include officials from Google, NASA, SpaceX and people inside the military.
Winners get a four-day weekend and a service medal.
But, CENTCOM isn’t the only organization looking for ideas within its ranks. The Naval Academy recently had its graduates present their ideas for the SCOUT initiative that lasted for three days in early August and was aimed at creative ways to stop drug smuggling.
Two ideas from the competition included a web of connection sensors at sea and GSP that can monitor fishing routes and find suspicious activity.
“We wanted to get fresh minds and perspectives to study the warfighting problems faced by Joint Interagency Task Force-South,” said Dan Cabel, SCOUT director. “What better minds than those at the Naval Academy, who will surely bring creative thinking and viewpoints to real-world challenges?”
The SCOUT challenge worked a little differently than usual innovation challenges. Academy graduates were divided into teams and given time to brainstorm and then faced a Shark Tank-type panel.
The organization is now reviewing how it can incorporation the ideas.