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Viper Innovation Cell: A New Spark

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Kevin Dunkleberger
  • 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

Under the roar of F-16 engines burling through the airspace above Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., there is a quiet, steady hum from the Viper Innovation Cell. Whether it is a 3D printer, robotics kit, flight simulator or Air Force brainpower hard at work, the Innovation Cell is a hub for exploration and creativity. This is where ideas come alive.

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Nickalos Richards, 20th Fighter Wing innovation lead, is on a mission to revamp the Viper Innovation Cell. His goal is clear; develop real-world solutions supporting the Air Combat Command’s (ACC) initiative to keep the United States Air Force at the forefront of air superiority through innovation and advancing technologies.

Built in 2019, the Viper Innovation Cell had a short-lived opening before the COVID-19 pandemic closed the facility. Fast forward to early 2023, Richards, a technology enthusiast and prior volunteer for a similar cell at Yokota Air Base, Japan, arrived at Shaw AFB and was inspired by Col. Kristoffer “Smirk” Smith’s, 20th Fighter Wing commander, welcome speech about innovation. Richards took action and brought life back to the cell after its slow relaunch post pandemic.

After paperwork was routed and funds allocated, Richards is now in charge of a facility comprised of $35,000 dollars in technological assets ranging from 3D printers, computers, flight simulators and robotic kits. 

Richard’s goal is for all Airmen to utilize the tools available at the  cell and innovate practical solutions for everyday workplace problems. His vision for integrating the cell into the Shaw AFB community includes teaching 3D printer classes, hosting families at “Open Cell Days” to immerse children into STEM areas and helping Airmen to continue to shape and change the Air Force of today, into the Air Force of tomorrow.

“Some people think innovation is huge, broad strokes to impact the whole Air Force, that’s not always true, innovation can be anything,” said Richards.

Richards is currently developing a 3D-printed M-4 Carbine magazine which helps save time reloading. He plans to fine-tune the details with the Combat Arms Training and Maintenance team and eventually implement the design at Shaw AFB. He also is finalizing a prototype for plastic sliders air traffic controllers use to track aircraft. The new version will reduce the cost from $500 in a mandatory bulk purchase to 5 cents a unit.

For those with just an inkling of an idea, Richards encourages them to visit the Innovation Cell. He is a certified 3D printer instructor, assists with pitch coaching and works with Airmen to earn funding for their projects – all one must do is stop in.

The Viper Innovation Cell is a pivotal player in the Air Force’s commitment to developing new technologies that continue to project power and secure its current position as the dominant force in future domains.

“The importance of the Viper Innovation Cell is to spearhead the innovative thought process across Shaw AFB. We empower Airmen and the community to think critically in problem solving and to find solutions to individual or group problems across the base,” said Staff Sgt. Eric Reader, 20th Fighter Wing Viper Innovation Cell alternate lead.

In 2022, an idea generated from Shaw AFB reached ACC level and was granted funding.

The 20th Component Maintenance Squadron (CMS) redesigned their Aircraft Fuel Systems Hydrazine Response Trailer. The mobile hub is used in response to Hydrazine (emergency power unit fuel) spills. The new layout of the trailer turned a clunky, cramped tow-behind, into an efficient unit with better workflow in emergency situations.

The ability to quickly respond to Hydrazine emergencies is crucial to the F-16 Fighting Falcon’s ability to effectively perform Shaw AFB’s primary Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) mission. With an increase in processes speed and response times, the 20th CMS’s readiness also supports the ACC’s Agile Combat Employment initiatives.

Ideas created at the cell have successfully saved the Air Force millions of dollars in funding and thousands of hours in manpower, allowing critical resources to be spent towards leading the way in air superiority.

“My challenge is getting Airmen to take part in the Innovation Cell and share their ideas,” said Chief Master Sgt. Christopher Griste, 20th Fighter Wing command chief. “The Viper Innovation Cell is an essential component to the 20th Fighter Wing’s ability to stay at the forefront and  remain the leading combat force. The cell offers Airmen a place to turn their ideas into tangible solutions to advance the 20th Fighter Wing’s warfighting capabilities.”

By working with the Viper Innovation Cell, Airmen can turn their ideas into tangible creations to support the Air Force’s commitment to developing a threat-informed, concept driven future force, and it all starts with Airmen coming to the cell.