Scott AFB wins innovation contest with ‘autonomous airfield operations’

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Solomon Cook
  • 375th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

Representing “Team Scott,” Craig Rednour walked away from an Air Force innovation contest as the first place winner for advocating for the use of intelligent machines in a flight line environment.

As a result, the base was awarded an additional $1.2 million in funding as the grand prize of the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center’s (IMSC) 2022 Innovation Rodeo. 

“It’s a great honor to be selected to represent the base for this project” said Rednour, 375th Civil Engineering Squadron. “Our team put a great deal of effort into this project, and it’s rewarding to see it get recognized. I hope to show all the hard work the team put into this product to help ensure it’s a success.”

The autonomous airfield operations project was born from a 2019 AFIMSC Rodeo submission for autonomous mowing on the flight line. After that project lost momentum, Lt. Col. Paul Fredin, former 375th CES commander, restored the initiative by approaching Scott AFB’s innovation hub, Elevate, after noticing Sabanto Agriculture, an up-and-coming autonomous farming technology company, automating the same tractors they currently use.

Elevate contacted Sabanto to host a tech demo of the equipment to base leadership in June of 2021. The demo led to a one-year contract for which Rednour serves as the contracting officer’s representative and civil engineering’s project manager.

The goal with the partnership between Elevate and Sabanto is to allow vast majorities of the nearly 2,400-acre installation to be mowed without the need to have operators in the field themselves. The automation program is designed to be completely remote and afford one civil engineer technician the capability to monitor and control up to five tractors safely and effectively.

First Lt. Thomas Goetze, Elevate’s 375th Air Mobility Wing innovation operations officer in charge, explained, that “after a successful capability demonstration in early 2021, Sabanto Agriculture received funding to perform a five-phase development plan in collaboration with the Federal Aviation Administration, the Air Force, and many other mission partners. This capability is expanding to several other bases already and has implications DoD-wide.”

In addition to being able to drag a “tow behind,” the tractors can be outfitted with various pieces of additional equipment. Within its current phase of implementation, two tractors are able to work in tandem - one mowing and the other picking up foreign objects and debris–or FOD–from the flight line that could potentially damage an aircraft while taxiing, taking off or landing. This capability will greatly enhance operations for airfield managers such as Airman 1st Class Jeffrey Stephens, 375th Operations Support Squadron.

“Airfield Management heads out to the airfield every three hours to perform a FOD check and after certain conditions such as a heavy aircraft taking off from our runway or after a severe weather warning like lightning. If FOD is not collected, it accumulates and creates an environment on the airfield that is not safe for aircraft. Small to large stones could get sucked into engine intakes of our planes and cause severe damage to the plane and anyone onboard if bad enough,” he said.

Currently FOD is collected using manned vehicles dragging a FOD sweeper or multiple personnel manually scouring the flight line.

Mowing automation and removing the need for Airmen completing mundane tasks allows them to focus on more technical and complex requirements, advancing combat readiness and sustaining air superiority on a global front, said Goetze.

“If what we're doing helps organizations in the DoD and the FAA to develop their own capabilities, then we consider that a win-win as well,” Goetze added.

AFIMSC’S innovation office helps Airmen and civilian members of mission support groups around the world pitch their ideas, partner with innovation experts and find funding. Chosen finalists compete annually for a share of at least $1 million in funding and resources to pursue their ideas.