SOFWERX innovators explore collaborations, connections in Tampa

Drones, or unmanned aircraft, are all the rage -- and lots of folks are looking for ways to use them for carrying packages, inspecting property or even just to have fun. 

Zach Levine and his friends’ interest was quite the opposite: Instead of studying a drone's capabilities, they looked for its vulnerabilities. In the end, they found a way to take over drones and ground them, with the goal of protecting American troops from attack.

Levine, along with Jeremy Smith, Kyle Castleline, Mason Jeffers and Matt Oldfield, accepted a challenge from Tampa’s OpenWERX to study drone vulnerabilities. Levine’s team, Dunning-Kruger Experience, delivered more than requested: They developed new software that can spoof a drone through its Global Positioning System, forcing it to land as if it were in a no-fly zone.

The pilot maintains manual flight control, but after a certain distance he or she can’t see the drone anymore. “It [the software] would make it impossible to carry out an attack unless they were 100 feet away,” Levine says.

For its efforts, Dunning-Kruger Experience won $3,000 it plans to put toward starting a business together. “We want to work on some inventions,” Levine says.

OpenWERX engages the public in a monthly contest to generate input about military and government concerns. The competitions, which can be attended in person or by webinar, are just one way the U.S. government is trying to make it easier for the public to deal with the bureaucracy, and meet its needs.

Building on the power of ideas

Tucked away in a building where Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti slept in 1891, the Fort Walton Beach-based Doolittle Institute runs SOFWERX, named for its connection to Special Operations Forces. SOFWERX includes OpenWERX and DirtyWERX, which handles fast protyping in a separate location.

Through collaboration, they are able to accomplish in two days what it otherwise may take 18 months to do. 

“The real power is in the ideas,” says James “Hondo” Geurts, U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) Acquisition Executive and Director of Special Operations Forces Acquisitions, Technology and Logistics (SOF AT and L).

The SOFWERX building was once a popular place for elite visitors like then-Col. Teddy Roosevelt, who later became President; President Grover Cleveland; and Sir Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War II. Now 100 to 150 enter its doors every week, some with ideas for what might become tomorrow’s hot inventions. So SOFWERX is poised to make history, through innovation. 

“It’s a great place to share ideas and they don’t have to be …  military ideas,” Geurts says.

He views SOFWERX as a community asset. “What’s so neat about it is, it’s built for collaboration,” Geurts says.

What helps warfighters also may help emergency medical personnel, firefighters, law enforcement, cities and businesses. “Certainly we have a drive to have solutions that help us, but it’s much more broad than that,” he adds.

Located in the second brick building constructed in Ybor City, SOFWERX was designed with conference rooms and computer work areas for a number of projects. On neutral ground, SOFWERX uses low-cost materials and open source software that enables it to try more ideas. 

“We can afford to fail faster and more often, which really helps the enterprise,” says Tambrien Bates, who directs SOFWERX. “Our goal is to actually get best of breed here.”

Hackathon on steroids

SOFWERX opened its doors in Ybor in December 2015 after outgrowing a smaller facility at the Tampa Armature Works, where the first hackathon was held. “That’s now morphed into OpenWERX, essentially a monthly hackathon,” says Jeff Young, an advisor to OpenWERX.

“I think the whole key to it is being able to provide a useful tool to a special operations warfighter,” he says.

OpenWERX challenges aren’t easy. “OpenWERX is similar to a hackathon but occurs over 30 days instead of a weekend,” explains Young, VP for Marketing/Business Development for Tampa’s Marjau Systems Corporation. “This enables the teams to more fully complete their solutions and provide a better response to the challenges we present in support of Special Operations Command.”

Funded with about $2 million annually from SOCOM, along with ideas, interns and other contributions from partners, SOFWERX already is making a difference. It’s developing an innovative cube that allows users to access a number of touchscreens at once, for example. It’s looking at the potential for clipping an antenna to a cellphone to convert it into a radio to be used on the battlefield. It's recognized medical technology that can evaluate a broken arm also can do a great job of seeing through doors, which is pretty helpful in the war zone. And it has also worked on adapting a commercial vehicle for the military’s more complex transport needs.

They’re studying commercial and racing drones to see how they can be made more robust for the battlefield, even when they crash into trees or the ground. And they’re looking at a drone that may be repaired with parts printed on a three-dimensional printer.

Small ideas can lead to great progress 

SOFWERX also is attracting attention from others outside the Tampa Bay area. Bernice Glenn, Senior VP of Strategic Partnerships for National Security Technology Accelerator, of Arlington, VA, and Jennifer Rocha, Executive Director of Corporate, Military and Federal Programs for the Austin-based TechConnect, toured the Ybor office on a recent visit to Tampa. 

“It’s a great bridge between what sometimes can come as a tough-to-break-into government or defense sector,” observes Glenn. “It really opens it up to very creative people in a very comfortable way.”

Rocha, Program Director for the Defense Innovation Summit and Showcase scheduled Oct. 3 through 5 in Tampa, notes an “obvious synergy” with SOFWERX. “We’re looking forward to building a relationship with them,” Rocha says. 

SOFWERX has opened its doors to high school students in the community. Through the FIRST Robotics Competition, students are given six weeks to build a 120-pound robot for competition, says Terri Willingham, FIRST ® Regional Director for Central Florida.

“Doolittle Institute gave each of the 13 teams attending the kick off $550 mini grants,” she says, and offered “real world engineering and design guidance.”

First is an international program for kindergarten through 12th-grade students focusing on science, technology, engineering and math.

Additionally, SOFWERX offers internships to college juniors and seniors with interest in a wide variety of fields, including mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, physics, business, graphic design, data analytics and robotics mechanization.

There are a number of ways to interact with SOFWERX, in addition to showing up at the doorstep at 1320 E. 9th Ave. Interested parties can sign up for email updates on OpenWERX challenges, or contact SOFWERX at 1-844-SOFWERX.

Even a small idea might lead to something great. “Most really great ideas are a combination of a lot of ideas put together in an innovative way,” Geurts says.
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Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. Now a wife and mother, Cheryl discovered her love of writing as a child when she became enthralled with Nancy Drew mysteries. She earned her bachelor's degree in Journalism and Sociology from Loyola University in New Orleans. While working at Loyola's Personnel Office, she discovered her passion for helping others find jobs. A Miami native, Cheryl moved to the Temple Terrace area in 1985 to work for the former Tampa Tribune