The Future Is Now

  • Published
  • By J.M. Eddins Jr.
  • Airman Magazine


The center of Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm, passed directly over the flightline at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, in the fall of 2018.

The hurricane’s eyewall winds, in excess of 160 mph, hit from the east and then quickly switched to the west, tearing apart infrastructure and damaging several multi-million-dollar aircraft.

The devastation was not complete, but it was close.

Flight operations were quickly resumed in the days following the storm, providing testimony to the professionalism and resiliency of today’s Airmen.

However, these following years may well end up being a powerful testimony to the impact of promoting innovation, commercial partnerships and agile acquisitions. By utilizing those tools, the Air Force has turned the destruction at Tyndall AFB into an opportunity to take the Base of the Future concept off the drawing board and actually build one.

Brig. Gen. Patrice A. Melancon, Tyndall AFB Reconstruction Program Management Office executive director, is working closely with Col. Brian Laidlaw, 325th Fighter Wing commander, to consolidate operations and relocate facilities that were built piecemeal since the base’s creation in the 1940s. The rebuild will result in a much more efficient layout for both operations and the daily life of Airmen.

“We are not going to just rebuild the base we had,” Melancon said. “We had things on the flightline side of the base that didn’t need to be there and other things necessary for operations that were on the other side of the base. Now we will put those functions where they need to be for smoother operations, but also so Airmen can walk or cycle to work.”

“We are brainstorming the art of the possible when we think about the rebuild of Tyndall Air Force Base…we want to think about it differently and build the base that we need. We have talked about building the installation of the future, well, let’s do it.”

The Air Force is working with AT&T to reconstruct Tyndall AFB’s communications infrastructure around 5G-powered capabilities.

While the base rebuild is scheduled in increments over 12 zones in the next three to five years, 5G capability is scheduled to begin operation this year. This will enable Tyndall AFB to stream and utilize data faster and more efficiently and provide more robust flightline operations, well in advance of the scheduled arrival of three squadrons of F-35 Lightning IIs beginning in September 2023.

The more robust data network will also support base security and surveillance, facility monitoring and energy efficiency, and augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) to increase readiness and reduce the cost of training for both flight operations and maintenance.

A network of sensors across the base — including connectivity built into everyday items, from refrigerators to watches — can utilize data to not only provide actionable intelligence to enhance mission capability and quicken the decision-making process, but make an Airman’s everyday life on base much more efficient, according to Melancon.

“I could foresee having a technician on the flightline with a tablet and if an aircraft has sent back a signal, ‘Hey, I’ve got this issue,’ the technician hits a couple of buttons to signal the warehouse and, kind of like Amazon, robots can pull parts and load them on an autonomous vehicle which meets the technician at the flightline before the plane even lands,” Melancon said.

The Air Force is not only partnering with huge corporations to build the Base of the Future.

A two-day showcase entitled AFWERX FUSION is scheduled for sometime this summer in Las Vegas, Nevada. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the date and venue are uncertain.

The showcase will be hosted by AFWERX, the Air Force’s innovation hub.

The AFWERX missions are to grow ties between the Air Force and small business, cultivate the use of new and innovative technologies among Airmen and across the force and speed the time it takes to get unique products out to the field.

AFWERX FUSION 2020 event is centered around the Base of the Future, one of the top focus areas of the Air Force and across the Department of Defense.

“This started as a simple concept: How could the Air Force turn a devastating experience like Hurricane Michael damaging an installation into an opportunity to establish a vision and shoot for the stars?” said Heather Wilde, AFWERX strategic innovation officer. “By providing people and organizations with promising technologies and concepts a pathway to work with the team behind this initiative, we’ve been able to expand what’s within the realm of possible.”

This annual flagship event brings together industry, individual innovators, academia, investors, as well as military and government team members. The goal of this event is to present innovative solutions for Air Force areas of interest and facilitate an environment of connection and collaboration.

“Being part of an initiative like building the ‘Base of the Future’ has been an incredibly collaborative and eye-opening experience,” said Wilde. “At AFWERX, we believe in the power of breaking through silos and aligning stakeholders to solve problems and innovate at the speed of relevance. Seeing this project take shape has shown us how dedicated Airmen are to improving the force via new and innovative ways.”

Approximately 200 teams will present their innovative solutions as part of an open showcase to attendees, including top Air Force leadership and other military decision-makers and operators. Concurrently, there will be live demos, keynote speakers, workshops and panel discussions.

FUSION showcases innovative companies with proposals that address Air Force needs. Winning proposals can move on to additional demonstrations, and any participant can find new investors and customers for their products, not just the Air Force. AFWERX itself doesn’t issue contracts, but connects industry and academia to Air Force organizations that do.

“Technologies such as frictionless entry or a fast-pass lane at a gate where you swipe your ID card or possibly use your fingerprint to go through a secured gate is technology in the commercial space that we need to leverage for our benefit,” Melancon said.

When it comes to building the Base of the Future, the destruction of old infrastructure at Tyndall AFB has given the Air Force the opportunity to make the future, now.

“The $3-billion military construction program is fully funded. We have all the money that we need and we have a plan to go forward and we are transitioning from recovery to rebuild,” Laidlaw said. “The facilities we are going to build will still be around 80 to 100 years from now and they will be supporting and protecting airplanes that we have not even invented yet.”