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'Shark Tank'-style Contest Provides Outlet for Navy Ideas

Cyber warfare

NORFOLK -- They call the competition Project Athena, but it's known to many as the "Shark Tank" of the Navy.

One by one, five sailors with innovative ideas came to the podium Friday night and presented their creations to a panel of high-level Navy officers, all competing for a chance to get one of them realized.

The ideas ran the spectrum: A math whiz at the Naval Academy who devised a computer program to address a key logistical problem in the military -- sorting through large amounts of data and parameters to create more efficient training or work schedules. A ship-based display technician with an idea to adapt personal headsets to the ship's systems, so sailors aren't stuck using gunky, uncomfortable and often broken Navy headsets.

But over the course of two hours at the art-inspired downtown nightclub Work -- Release, something else developed. Instead of a formal Navy event, the competition brought military and civilian thinkers together and, in the middle of a massive rainstorm, a sort of magic happened.

Sure, enlisted sailors with great ideas met commanders who have the ability to bring them to life. But they also met community innovators and learned that right downtown in Norfolk, there's a club -- 757 Makerspace -- where you don't need a commander to turn your idea into reality. And if you go there, you are going to find there's a whole community of people who are thinking about how to affect the future of their generation.

"To me it's about the connections," said Capt. Sean Heritage, the commanding officer of the Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command, based in Suffolk. "At this forum tonight, there are people from formal Navy -- OpNav staff, cyber guys, information dominance -- sailors from all ranks, people from industry. So there's gonna be magic that happens."

Heritage was one of five panelists. There also was a ship commander, a destroyer squadron commander, a department head at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center, and a science and technology advisor for the Navy's Information Dominance office at the Pentagon. They brought a variety of Navy interests to the table to consider innovation.

"These gentlemen have the power to implement these ideas," said organizer Matt Hipple, co-founder of the Center for International Maritime Security, a nonprofit think tank dedicated to naval security issues, which sponsored the event along with the Surface Navy Association and the U.S. Naval Institute.

The presentations lasted five minutes each. Then the audience and the panelists asked questions. The idea, said Hipple, is to exchange and explore ideas.

One sailor, Lt. Todd Coursey, presented an application for using a desktop CNC machine -- a manufacturing process that uses computers to control machine tools -- to enable on-the-spot repairs and replacement of small parts on ships, like cutting a section of circuit board.

"The value is: Can I fix it right now?" said panelist Capt. Robert Bodvake, commodore of Destroyer Squadron 2.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Steve Sturm presented a simple pipe-and-nozzle device to rinse mud, beach sand and dirt off the wheels and undercarriages of vehicles before they return to ships. It could save dozens of man-hours cleaning the interior of the ship after an excursion, he said.

"Normally, we don't have the ability to clean them," said panelist Capt. John Carter, commanding officer of the amphibious assault ship Bataan. "This is pretty sophisticated."

Chief Petty Officer Robert Williams drew a lot of conversation around his plan to create a forum for chiefs and petty officers first class to train petty officers second class for a leadership role -- giving the younger generation a venue to ask questions and giving the Navy a way to better prepare new leaders.

Panelist Brett Vaughn, from the chief of naval operations information dominance office, said breaking away from the static training of the Navy and forcing leaders to be more flexible is "a good thing."

"Speaking as someone who represents one of the Navy's newest disciplines, I think it's important," he said. "I think you have something here."

In the end, it was up to the audience to choose its favorite innovation. The crowd went with the headset adaptor, presented by Petty Officer 2nd Class Aaron Vickers, a display technician on board the destroyer Laboon.

Vickers said most young sailors already own a good gaming headset, and the audience seemed to grasp his scenarios of uncomfortable, broken headsets that enable the spread of viruses through a ship -- "One person gets sick on deployment, everyone gets sick," he said.

Bodvake said he wanted to talk with the sailor later; Vaughn said he would connect him with a program called tech solutions, which looks at commercial off-the-shelf solutions for the ship.

"I think we are trying to figure out where these modern, up-to-date ideas fit into our organization," Bodvake said.

The biggest success of the evening, Vaughn said, was just letting sailors know there's an outlet for their ideas to be heard.

"Without something like this, it would be a very fortunate set of circumstance that would have to align for these ideas to have impact," he said. "That is made a lot more likely now."

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