Airmen innovate alert system to enhance readiness, save money
By Airman 1st Class Erin McClellan, 22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
/ Published January 13, 2017
MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. -- Throughout the past year, an unlikely pair of McConnell Airmen, a plumber and a boom operator, poured their energy into innovating a cost-effective way to develop and deliver a new system to safely direct alert aircrews during fast-response actions on base.
When Tech. Sgt. Clayton Allen, 22nd Air Refueling Wing Plans and Programs NCO in-charge, and Master Sgt. Bartek Bachleda, 22nd ARW XP superintendent, took on the challenge of designing new alert route signs, they leaped into researching the most modern, cost-effective solution.
After exploring multiple options and comparing costs, Allen, a civil engineer by trade, took the lead on designing the operating firmware in-house.
“When it comes to all of the signs’ electronic control modules, I came up with the design, put it together, programmed the firmware and coded the web-based application that allows control and monitoring of the signs remotely,” Allen said.
Allen currently holds a bachelor’s degree in web design and development and said he also intends to seek a degree in electrical engineering to pursue developing technologies in the internet of things.
“When Tech. Sgt. Allen came to Wing Plans and Programs, Lt. Col. Hertzelle and I interviewed him, some of the most important reasons we hired him to work here were his technical expertise with electronics and the ability to build complex devices all while solving problems,” said Bachleda. “What he has accomplished in the wing since his arrival transcends anything he has done to date. That is the level of impact he has on the wing mission.”
The first step for the system was the design of the signs themselves. The 18-inch by 16-inch signs are made from scrap aircraft aluminum and are fitted with reflective arrows and carefully-selected, amber-colored Law Enforcement LED lights. The signs are each powered by an industrial-grade 12-volt battery with a heavy-duty solar panel as a back-up power source.
One of the most unique aspects of the signs is how they are controlled. In order to transmit the signals that turn the signs on and off, they had to meet strict federal radio emission requirements and be approved by the 22nd Communications Squadron, Air Mobility Command and the Federal Communications Commission for use on a military installation.
“We researched extensively, and the only system that met the requirements was a communications chip commonly found in cell phones,” said Bachleda. “They all come with an FCC ID, therefore, they’re already cleared to be on the installation. Most people already have a cell phone on base; we simply added 21 more.”
The system serves the base and the Air Force in more ways than one.
“This system is important to McConnell Air Force Base because it will provide visual warning to base personnel that there could soon be a high-speed alert vehicle responding along the route they are travelling,” said Lt. Col. Wendell Hertzelle, 22nd ARW XP chief. “The crew is responding to a time-sensitive alert mission, and it is imperative that they respond promptly and safely to ensure they meet their tasking, improving national security.”
Currently, McConnell is the only base with this technology, but soon, more bases throughout the Air Force will embrace it. Future systems will be interconnected, allowing signs at every location to be activated at once during a national response exercise, Bachleda said.
“I believe it’s safe to say that anywhere there’s a base with an alert force requirement, our signs have a very good chance of being there,” said Allen.
The national security asset that this team created is one of a kind. Their innovativeness potentially saved the Air Force millions of dollars. The idea won honorable mention for U.S Transportation Command Commander’s Innovation Showcase Award and has been submitted to AMC and TRANSCOM for the Innovator of the Year award with plans to submit to the Airmen Powered by Innovation program as well.
“Our home-grown system set a unique precedent for this requirement,” said Bachleda. “There was nothing we could have used or followed to bring this back on line other than invent it ourselves. We were our own research and development team to deliver a 21st-Century version of this.
We developed and tested several variants of circuitry control systems, LED lights, solar panels, batteries and sign designs before arriving at a consensus between five base agencies on what was going to work best. We literally built something with parts that were never intended or designed to be used together.”