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March 20, 2011

Special Innovations for Special Operations

Alison Carr, co-leader of the Applied Information Systems Department’s Innovation Challenge

American special operations soldiers gathering critical intelligence and data in hostile territory have found that sometimes the best tool for the job is a civilian device, not a military one. A new favorite of these elite warfighters is the commercial smartphone: a compact, flexible, powerful piece of electronic gear. Although the operators have managed to get their smartphones to perform some of the specialized functions they need in the field, there is still a list of as-yet-unwritten applications they'd like, from instant translation to accurate mapping to fast intelligence analysis.

Creating these applications for operators, or "Apps for Ops," was the mission facing the 2010 Innovation Challenge (IC) participants in APL's Applied Information Sciences Department (AISD). The staffers, all new and younger employees, worked with instructors from Fort Bragg, NC—home of the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (a.k.a. "The School House"). The instructors, all veterans of multiple missions around the world, volunteered to meet with the AISD teams and describe the things they wished they could do better in the field.

"Our adversary is fast and agile," says AISD's Alison Carr, who has been co-lead for the 2009 and 2010 challenges. "We need to help our soldiers be just as fast and agile. Why not give them something of military grade and quality?"

That sort of critical thinking and approach is the goal of the IC, which was created in 2008 by Ralph Semmel (then AISD's department head and now APL's director) and the AISD Diversity Resource Team, led by Tao Jen. The IC was designed to provide an alternative to the barriers that can form in large departments and also to give young AISD staffers the chance to work across different disciplines and learn things outside of their "comfort zone."

 The task required the teams to both listen and do some technical translation. "They needed to hear what the operator wants," says Carr, "and also understand the problem he's trying to solve. We wanted the team to get at the root problem."

Another issue was usability: "These guys are really intelligent and bright," Carr continues, "but they reminded us that they might be up for 72 hours straight. They're going to be exhausted and hungry." That meant they wouldn't be great at performing complex software operations and would need something that could be run with simple clicks or inputs.

As the teams got to work, it was clear that the goal of getting staffers to veer outside their comfort zones was going to be easily met: "We had hardware people writing software libraries, analysts doing presentations, applied mathematicians programming phones," says Paul Velez, the other co-lead for the 2010 challenge. "We had a real eye to mix the teams and create working relationships, and put people together who don't work together very often, and wouldn't know one another."

As development continued, design decisions sometimes required an expert opinion. Thankfully, says Carr, "there are some former operators here at the Lab, and it was great for the teams to be able to bounce some ideas off the guys here as things were developing."

The teams' diligence and hard work paid off when the Army operators returned to APL to view the finished products. "It was great to hear from the operators as we showed them the apps," says Carr. "They were pleasantly surprised at how much our younger tech people actually ‘heard' them when they were explaining their needs."

The winning IC team (Katherine Schulte, Tammara Massey, Derek Pryor, and Elizabeth Reilly) visited Fort Bragg this past February to learn more about the real-world events that led to the operators' specific requests for custom applications. "They [got] to sit in on training courses and find out where the problems they were addressing came from," says Velez, "and see exactly how their solutions could literally fit into a real situation."