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Whiteman AFB Airman innovates, develops smart maintenance floor mat to prevent FOD

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Paul Olexa, 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron aerospace propulsion apprentice, pitches an idea called the Mag Rug during a Spark Tank competition, at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, Oct. 9, 2020. Whiteman Spark Tank is a competition where Airmen pitch their innovative ideas to a panel of wing and community leadership. Eleven ideas were pitched and the judges selected two to compete at the Air Force Global Strike Command’s Spark Tank competition. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Dylan Nuckolls)

Airman 1st Class Paul Olexa, 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron aerospace propulsion apprentice, pitches an idea called the Mag Rug during a Spark Tank competition at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., Oct. 9, 2020. Whiteman AFB Spark Tank is a competition where Airmen pitch their innovative ideas to a panel of wing and community leadership. Eleven ideas were pitched and the judges selected two to compete at the Air Force Global Strike Command’s Spark Tank competition. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Dylan Nuckolls)

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. (AFNS) --

Foreign object debris, or FOD, can come from a variety of sources and presents a major hazard to aircraft around the world, costing the aviation industry an estimated $4 billion in repairs each year.

One Whiteman Air Force Base Airman took it upon himself to try to prevent these maintenance costs after learning about the risks of FOD and the importance of having good attention to detail on the flight line.

“From the moment I walked onto the flight line, I was blown away by the sheer power of the B-2 (Spirit)s and the Airmen who work around them,” said Airman 1st Class Paul Olexa, 509th Bomb Wing Innovation Office assistant, originally assigned to the 509th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. “I began to learn the process for removing, inspecting, and installing parts. I watched how Airmen handled tools, parts, and where they placed objects.”

Seeing the trends for item placement and the chance of losing parts or tools, Olexa realized something needed to be done to keep track of these items. Originally he focused on the magnetic aspect of many parts and tools as a way to keep track of them.

Before joining the military, Olexa worked as an area manager within a factory, this industrial background exposed him to a variety of floor mats that serve a variety of purposes. This experience helped him develop a floor mat that would potentially reduce FOD. The concept started as a magnetic floor mat and evolved to incorporate smart technology in order to analyze and track FOD.

“The FOD mat is a durable polymer mat capable of detecting and locating metallic and non-metallic objects using a variety of sensors,” Olexa said. “Doing so will allow users to easily find FOD thus reducing the risk of damage, property damage, labor hours, and mission delays.”

With up to eight hours of battery life, the mats will be able to be used throughout various maintenance tasks and will record data for the items that fall on them.

“Each item dropped on the mat will be assigned a unique ID and will be recorded in a database,” Olexa said. “Metrics recorded on the database will be the item location, time of drop and time of retrieval. It will also include a machine learning model for object identification.”

While the FOD mat was developed for use during military aircraft maintenance, Olexa stated there will be a public version with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities along with a variety of sizes to fit the needs of different industries.

The mats will be modular and will be able to be connected to form larger mats. They can also be stacked for storage and charging.

The initial prototype, which will be no larger than a pizza box, is undergoing development by Texas A&M University engineering students for their capstone project. The capstone project partners students with innovators and industry professionals, giving them the opportunity to use the skills and knowledge they’ve acquired to produce and design real-world projects.

“Innovation is the method by which we maintain or in some areas, regain our competitive edge in every warfighting domain,” said Capt. Benjamin Fogarty, 509th Bomb Wing Innovation Office director. “It is the diametric opposite of complacency; innovation requires us to take the initiative and not accept the status quo, but instead strive for something better.”

Fogarty added that innovation comes to play in the lives of Airmen by improving efficiency, quality of work and providing new insight to units that choose to innovate.

“What we are finding is that better forms of communication and the ability to understand data in real-time is a cross-enterprise obstacle now for the Air Force and we are pursuing numerous parallel lines of effort to solve this ubiquitous problem,” Fogarty said.

The 509th BW Innovation Office along with innovation teams across the Air Force are working together to solve problems and overcome obstacles in more efficient, cost effective and creative ways by opening the door for new ideas and technology.

“A1C Olexa has so far been unique in his success, and has done an extraordinary thing by putting himself out there and having the persistence to carry his idea to fruition,” Fogarty said. “He had good leaders who pointed him in the right direction. We need more of our leaders to step up and do the same for their Airmen. We need them to tell their Airmen, ‘That's a great idea and the innovation office can help you make it a reality. I've seen them do it.”

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