Air Force Opens Innovation Hub in Las Vegas

Vice President Mike Pence, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein attend the opening of AFwerX in Las Vegas on Jan. 11, 2017. Vice President Mike Pence Twitter photo.

The Air Force opened its new innovation hub and startup center in Las Vegas Thursday with the goal to incubate a new approach to solving national security problems.

Vice President Mike Pence, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein presided over the opening ceremony of AFwerX—a massive facility near Nellis AFB, Nev., that will include labs, collaboration spaces, and special access areas to create “disruptive technology.”

AFwerX “will be an incubator for new ideas and technology,” said Pence during the ceremony. “This program will focus on breaking down barriers. The best way to prevent conflict is to be prepared, and that really is what AFwerX is all about.”

With an initial $2 million budget, AFwerX will include Air Force officials, as well as involvement from industry and academia, and even interns from the nearby University of Nevada-Las Vegas. It centers on a facility that includes a 25,000-square-foot fabrication lab, which contains 3D printers and carbon fiber ovens to help “bring some ideas to life in a physical form,” AFwerX spokesman Bobby Mack told Air Force Magazine. The second floor is a 15,000-square-foot collaboration space, which includes areas that are restricted for classified work.

AFwerX will eventually have a permanent staff of 12 people focusing on new USAF mission areas. The first focus of AFwerX will be on unmanned aerial systems, and finding “new solutions and advancements” in the world of drones, Mack said. AFwerX is also looking to host public discussions, similar to TED Talks.

The new program is looking to follow the lead of private companies, which move much faster than the military in finding new solutions.

“It’s a higher risk not to act than to act,” Capt. Steven Lauver, the co-director of the Air Force Technology Accelerator at AFWERX, in a release. “If we don’t begin executing on the innovation conversation then we are going to fall behind on a global schedule.”

AFwerX is overseen by Defensewerx—a nonprofit collaboration with the Defense Department that also oversees the special operations-focused SOFwerx facility in Tampa, Fla.

Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Steven Wilson, in an interview Thursday with Air Force Magazine, said the site is also a storefront, “about a third of a mile from the [Vegas] Strip,” that is willing to take ideas from people who walk in off the street and have ideas to offer.

“We’re all ears,” Wilson said, noting that similar efforts with Air Force Special Operations Command have produced a few genuine technology advances for special operators, particularly in personal mobility and reducing the weight that special operators have to carry.

Wilson said the location was chosen because “seven million people a year” go there, it has proximity to an Air Force base (Nellis), the fact that huge consumer electronics shows are held in Las Vegas, that there’s a big convention “every week” in the city, it has proximity to Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, “West Coast labs,” and other West Coast pockets of innovation, “and it’s a destination unto itself.” It’s also a “non-traditional” approach.

“We looked at Wright-Patt,” which is in Dayton, Ohio, he said, which is the home of Air Force Research Laboratory, but the Air Force felt Las Vegas would attract a much larger, more diverse audience and potentially a wider net of good suggestions. He said “that is not going to be the only place” where there will be such a storefront for ideas. “We’ll have a couple of satellite” facilities; one of which will be in Washington, D.C. “because we think D.C. is a pretty good tech hub that lots of people come to. Other potential sites include Massachusetts and Austin, Texas.

As for who will be the arbiter of what constitutes a good idea off the street, Wilson said, “We’re hunting for the person … right now.”