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Cyber fellowship sparks innovative ideas

Dr. Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, speaks with members of the fall 2020 AFVentures Fellowship cohort and members of past fellowship cohorts during a virtual fireside chat Oct. 22.

Dr. Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, speaks with members of the fall 2020 AFVentures Fellowship cohort and members of past fellowship cohorts during a virtual fireside chat Oct. 22. The Digital Directorate is a key partner in the AFVentures Fellowship program, which offers Department of Defense personnel immersion learning opportunities to help bridge the gap between the DOD and industry. (Courtesy photo)

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – Personnel from the Air Force Life Cycle Management Digital Directorate and Detachment 12’s Kessel Run are using their recent AFVentures Cyber Fellowship experiences to promote innovation and accelerate change within their programs.

Kevin Kelly, technical director for PEO Digital, Capt. Lillian Warner, Red Team lead for Cyber Security Engineering at Kessel Run, and 1st Lt. Greg Barrow, project manager for Unit Level Intelligence at Kessel Run, were among the first cyber cohort of 17 service members selected for the program. Fellows were matched to technology companies based in San Francisco; Los Angeles; Ann Arbor, Michigan; New York and Boston for a six-week virtual immersion October through November 2020.

The Digital Directorate is a key partner in the AFVentures Fellowship program, which offers Department of Defense personnel immersion learning opportunities to help bridge the gap between the DOD and industry. Members of Digital’s contracting team helped execute and administer a Phase III Small Business Innovation Research award to Shift, the talent development company facilitating the fellowship, in September 2020.

“This effort brings tremendous value to our national defense-related mission need in the area of human capital and technology integration with best-in-class commercial engineering and software development companies,” said Capt. Matthew Ruden, Program Executive Office for Digital’s innovation director.

Following this unique experience, the fellows actively sought ways to use lessons learned and the relationships they built to enhance the mission in their respective units.

“The primary goal of the program is to bring some knowledge of the private sector back to the DOD,” said Barrow. “We know that not everything in the government is happening at warp speed and things in tech generally happen quickly, so there are a lot of tools, technology and practices that can be adopted by the DOD.”

Barrow was assigned to the New York-based company SecurityScorecard and, since returning to his unit, he’s encouraged by his team’s innovative mindset.

“Working with SecurityScorecard gave me an appreciation for Kessel Run, because I see that same willingness to think outside the box within our unit, and it’s really been a source of pride for me,” he said.

Barrow said the “approachable network of people” he met through his fellowship experience will be valuable contacts as he works on different unit level intelligence projects.

Warner is using the network she built during the fellowship to help her Air Force colleagues while she completes Squadron Officer School.

“Some of my venture capital contacts have reached out to see if I know of an Air Force program that might find value in a particular startup’s product,” she said. “I have been able to send out messages to folks I know in different Air Force units to see if they need something that, for example, does data validation or a piece of software that analyzes code. It’s been neat to use my experience in a networking capacity.”

When she returns to her unit at Kessel Run, Warner plans to use her experience working with Anduril, a company focused on software and hardware national security solutions, to enhance communication and understanding around the role of red teams.

“I want to encourage collaborative efforts to enhance the security of Air Force software with the help of startups and other partners,” she said.

Going into the program, Kelly’s intention was to focus on software technologies, like machine learning and artificial intelligence. But after talking with a former fellow and F-22 instructor pilot, Kelly said his focus shifted to developments in microelectronics.

“Some of these technologies that are leading to improvements in high performance computing, 5G and 6G networks and mobile computing can be used to improve the performance of airborne radars and communications,” he said.

Kelly’s experience “accelerated” his regular work and inspired him to branch out into a whole new area.

“In the near term my focus is on defining a reference architecture for machine learning that can be used across a range of problems — along the lines of what Uber does with their Michelangelo machine learning platform,” he said. “Longer term, my focus is on how commercial microelectronics advances will power the next generation of airborne systems, especially on the unmanned jet aircraft like Valkyrie and Skyborg.”

For Kelly and the other fellows, taking time away from day-to-day duties to focus on where technology is moving and how cutting edge commercial technologies could be applied to DOD problems was very valuable.

“The next 10 years will bring much higher performance in computing and communications, especially for mobile systems, and these capabilities when combined with advances in software and machine learning will deliver amazing new products and applications,” Kelly said.