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Robotic mower idea may reduce bird hazards near flightlines

Innovation presentation

Byron Icenogle and Jason Griffith practice giving their pitch about an autonomous mower that will help reduce bird strikes to the Innovation Rodeo, Feb. 7, 2020 in San Antonio, Texas. The Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center, or AFISMC, held the competition to get Mission Support Groups throughout the Air Force to submit ideas for projects to help create innovation Air Force wide. (Courtesy photo)

Innovation presentation

Innovation Rodeo participants pose for a group photo, Feb. 7, 2020 in San Antonio, TX. The event showcased the top eight ideas from across the Air Force with new ideas for future innovation, from new apps to autonomous mowers. (Courtesy photo)

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. –  Airports around the world spend significant time and effort to reduce the risks presented by bird strikes, and two members of the 375th Civil Engineer Squadron recently returned from an Air Force contest in San Antonio with $300K for an idea to reduce those risks.

The idea is to have autonomous mowers operate near flightlines during the evening and non-flying operations because during the day birds will often follow mowers around to prey on the bugs that are disturbed.

Jason Griffith and Byron Icenogle took this idea to the Spark Tank Innovation Rodeo on Feb. 7 in San Antonio, Texas, and it came in third of 143 ideas submitted by mission support groups from across the Air Force.

During the past 25 years, bird incidents have cost the Air Force over $800 million in damages, 13 destroyed aircraft and 27 Airmen killed from more than 105,000 strikes.

By using autonomous mowers during non-peak hours, this would reduce the hazards from birds and other wildlife striking the aircraft.

“The idea started as a joke,” said Griffith. “It was a way to solve the birds flocking around the mowers on the airfield.”

The duo first brought the idea to Scott AFB’s new “Elev-8 Scott” office, an on-base innovation hub designed to provide Airmen the means to bring their ideas about mission improvements to fruition. Then in November, the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center announced an innovation rodeo to solicit ideas from across the Air Force’s mission support groups, with the top three ideas each receiving a share of $1M in funding for further development.

Griffith and Icenogle worked with the Elev-8 Scott office to develop the initial pitch, and their idea was selected as one of eight finalists to go to San Antonio to present their concept to AFIMSC leadership.

“The experience in San Antonio was great,” Icenogle said. “The week started off with us giving our pitch first thing Monday morning and it never slowed down. The entire AFIMSC team was amazing all week to include the panel members.”

AFIMSC awarded the team $300K of the $1M prize money. This money will be matched two-to-one through a Small Business Innovation Research proposal to implement the idea to see if it works the way they think it will.  

The Small Business Innovation Research program is run by the Air Force Research Laboratory and the AFWERX program. SBIR provides opportunities for Air Force organizations to partner with small businesses to develop their ideas.

Icenogle said developing the idea and preparing for the contest was a lot of work, and Elev-8 Scott’s assistance was instrumental in getting it all ready for the judges.

“The entire process from start to finish was a huge workload, but the team at the Elev-8 Scott office made it easy and painless.  The team of 1st Lt. Worley and Master Sgt. Miller were great at giving good feedback on our pitch and pushing us to make it the best product we could.”

Elev-8 Scott has several resources and tools available to help develop and grow ideas with the ultimate goal of helping the user implement solutions that provide new value to their organization, said 1st Lt. Brad Worley, 375th Air Mobility Wing chief innovation officer.

“When Airmen have a good idea, we provide opportunities to come work in our office for a short duration of time to refine and determine its feasibility,” he said. “Elev-8 Scott is here to help Airmen find, develop, and implement solutions to problems or pain points affecting their organization. Our goal is to provide Airmen with the resources to be innovative by increasing readiness, reducing cost, giving back time and increasing lethality.”

Griffith said, “It’s still a little unbelievable! We hope this makes the Air Force better. We feel like it’s a huge accomplishment for us and civil engineering.”