The sixth iteration of the XVIII Airborne Corps’ innovation challenge known as Dragon’s Lair saw five service members bring ideas that may soon become standard in the service.

And in the event’s first-ever all-service competition, one of the five winners wasn’t from the Army.

Air Force 1st Lt. Justin Obrien, with the 88th Air Base Wing at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio showcased a battery-operated, water-cooled plate carrier system that he designed, which keeps troops as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit cooler in hot climates.

Army 2nd Lt. Lance Relleve, a reserve officer with the 453rd Chemical Battalion out of California, used artificial intelligence and machine learning to design a tool that predicts the interior floor plans of a building only using the structure’s external architecture.

Three soldiers teamed together for the final winning pitch, which was a harness system for the M88 Recovery Vehicle that should prevent injury or death to the vehicle gunner in an accident or rollover. Those three soldiers, Sgt. 1st Class Keenan Millay, Staff Sgt. Carter Casey and Spc. Johnathan King, hail from the 20th Engineer Brigade at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

The winners get a four-day pass, their pick of an Army training school and a Meritorious Service Medal.

The competition has elements of the popular TV show, “Shark Tank.” Competitors submit their ideas online and are selected to then pitch their projects to a board of XVIII Airborne Corps leaders and subject matter experts in the area they’re working.

“This episode saw a wide diversity of innovations – from Augmented Reality to Machine Learning to welding of equipment already available in inventory. Of the seven presentations, five could easily have won, so the competition was substantial,” said U.S. Army Col. Joe Buccino, Dragon’s Lair Executive Producer.

This was the first time three separate winners were selected, he said.

All four military branches had submissions in the first such competition that was open to all services, he said.

Relleve, who is also an architect in his civilian life, saw his algorithm solution to mapping internal floor plans from external cues as a way to give combat troops an edge when working in urban terrain.

The soldiers with the 20th Engineer Batt. developed their gunner restraint system following the death of a fellow soldier in a 2018 rollover incident, Buccino said.

The team searched for such a restraint in the Army inventory and found none. During that research, they also found that the gunner didn’t have a proper line of sight from the turret to fire the M2 .50 caliber machine gun. That forced gunners to lean back or sit on top the vehicle for correct aiming.

So, the crew built a 14.25-inch metal extension to the M2 mount, extending the gunner’s space. They then bolted a retractable restraint to the floor, which is similar to harnesses used in other tactical vehicles.

“The impact of this is potentially going to be outstanding with saving lives and preventing injuries,” King said. “Having a system to keep you from being ejected from a vehicle in the event of a rollover is potentially lifesaving.”

Buccino said the command and innovators will now work with the Defense Department to find ways to officially implement the three winning ideas into the system.

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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