U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. --
Air Force leaders know who to call when they need a problem solved.
It’s the Air Force's cyber design and innovation center in Fairchild Hall at the Air Force Academy.
That location makes sense, as Fairchild Hall is the research epicenter for cadets and faculty.
“Access to cadets and faculty gives us the ability to bring a broad cross-section of expertise and fresh perspective into our problem-solving process,” said Lt. Col. Michael Chiaramonte.
CyberWorx focuses on technology, innovation in problem solving, industry partnerships and education.
Since the summer of 2016, cadets and faculty have worked with industry partners to prototype and deliver solutions to several Air Force Cyber concerns. They work on a variety of technology efforts from improving physical fitness data processing, and developing apps to speed up cyber and multi-domain command and control. They’ve also joined with students from local colleges to develop ways to bring more women into the IT and tech community.
Chiaramonte is the CyberWorx director and course director for the Innovative Design Course offered at the Academy. Cadets enrolled in this course transform how the Air Force conducts innovation and uses the cyber domain, he said.
“We’re achieving what we set out to do though, as with any new organization, our capability and impact is growing and maturing,” he said. “We’ve accomplished 15 projects for the Air Force, and each time we reflect on our projects to refine them and ensure we provide value.”
Outside the Box
CyberWorx research revolves around Design Thinking or “Human Centered Design.”
“We design solutions around people to overcome specific barriers in their lives,” Chiaramonte said. “Our ‘people first’ focus ensures we get solutions users want and enjoy. There are many methods and tools that fit under that people first umbrella, but the process includes user research tied to a cycle of creating concepts, prototyping, testing and development.”
Cadet 1st Class Monica Callan, a management major, said all cadets can learn from Design Thinking.
“It would have been very valuable to have learned this earlier in my cadet career,” she said. “It would help a lot of cadets reignite that spark for learning. We were given an opportunity to affect the mission of the operational Air Force and that was motivating.”
“Operational Air Force" defines how the service combines Airmen and resources to fulfill a mission.
Callan said Design Thinking gave her an appreciation for networking.
“Initially, my Design Sprint group believed we could only reach out to the cyber squadron we were answering a question for, but in reality many other functional areas that were not related were great choices for research,” she said. “[The design process] broadened my perspective of how to tackle a problem.”
Human Centered Design has been well-received by Pentagon officials and the Academy’s industry partners.
“We’ve had multiple repeat customers, a good sign our value is being recognized,” Chiaramonte said. “Many new innovation organizations have been seeking our advice.”
CyberWorx partners with C-TRAC, a Colorado-based nonprofit supporting science and education, to connect with industry partners.
“C-TRAC helps us build diverse teams of industry partners who help solve hard problems,” Chiaramonte said. “They help us formulate technology-transition plans to industry or other government organizations. Our mutual support has helped each grow at a faster pace than we would have been able to do otherwise.”
CyberWorx is still determining the extent of its capabilities.
“This includes our direct-design activities and how we facilitate tech-transfer and the commercialization of prototypes and concepts to ensure we improve the lives of service members and their abilities to engage our enemies,” Chiaramonte said.
Part of the fun, the CyberWorx director said, is taking on difficult projects.
“We have challenges we need to work through where the specific details and magnitudes have been surprising,” Chiaramonte said. “The major issues have been ones we expected as we set out to try new things.”
Design Sprints help with these challenges by bringing CyberWorx partners together to solve problems. Callan said these 'sprints' are hotbeds of inspired thinking.
“Each member comes up with as many ideas as possible in a specific time frame,” she said. “When the time is up, you evaluate and eliminate ideas and [recap] the ones that sound promising. It’s pretty cool, getting the chance to think a bit more outside the box and get creative.”
April’s Design Sprint focused on new ways of addressing Air Force cyber security risks.
“The goal was to find a better way to address security risks all the while working faster and more intuitively for our Airmen and partners,” Chiaramonte said. “The process by which we approve the security of a device or application is too cumbersome, costly and slow to keep pace with the digital age.”
At the Academy, CyberWorx staff have near-immediate access to the research of cadets.
“By being a college and not an operational base, we have a bit more flexibility regarding what we do with industry,” Chiaramonte said.
Callan benefited from her CyberWorx experience.
“It was very meaningful,” she said. “We were given a problem the Air Force is facing and were able to [research] various ideas, travel to bases that were affected, meet with contractors from the private sector and develop contacts with others who serve in the operational Air Force to solve the problem.”
Taking part in CyberWorx tweaked Callan’s perspective.
“I fell in love with the school again,” she said.
This year’s National Defense Authorization Act signed by President Donald Trump authorizes $30 million for a new CyberWorx facility at the Academy. A proposed 33,000-square foot facility will allow the staff to simultaneously research 10 projects and increase its ability to work with more industry partners.
“As this is a private-public endeavor, donor funding will provide facility expansion and enhancements, boast technology enhancements and include state-of-the-art immersive labs and maker spaces,” Chiaramonte said. “This single facility will bring together all of the cyber-related programs at the Academy for a holistic and strengthened ecosystem.”
Lt. Col. Cynthia Brothers, political science professor and CyberWorx director of strategic engagement, said construction on the new building is slated to begin in the first fiscal quarter of 2019. The facility will be built near Stillman Parade Field and is expected to open for business in 2022.
“Industry partners will have access to the facility after being approved to come through the gate,” she said. “They will not have to be badged or escorted.”
The U.S. Air Force Academy Endowment supports a private expansion of the facility and its mentoring programs. The endowment raises funds to support large-scale capital construction projects, cadet programs, and other initiatives at the Academy, according to its website.
The potential for commercialization of problem-solving prototypes created by CyberWorx is a boon to the Defense Department, Chiaramonte said.
“We just have to get the processes right and we’re learning in the space every day,” he said. “Things will only get better.”