This month, a new recruit will report for duty at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia.
Instead of wearing an Army or Marine Corps uniform, the recruit, named Olli, sports a white-and-black paint job with a blue stripe encircling its chassis. Olli isn’t a Soldier or Marine, but a self-driving, autonomous shuttle made from 3D-printed parts.
Built by mobility company Local Motors, Olli will serve at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall as part of a three-month pilot program to provide free, installation-wide transportation to service members, dependents and civilian employees.
“Many of the young people joining the military today are moving away from personal car ownership,” said Marine Corps Lt. Col. Brandon Newell, who helped bring the Olli program to the base. “On average, car ownership costs $9,000 a year—that’s one third of a young Marine’s pay.
“By looking at the potential of low-speed, autonomous shuttles like Olli, we can provide on-base mobility to our warfighters, thereby encouraging their financial stability,” Newell continued. “In the future, we hope to see Olli branch out from just serving this base to traveling to the Pentagon and other locations in northern Virginia.”
The work of Installation-werX
The Olli rollout was an initiative by Installation werX (I-werX)—a supporting branch of the U.S. Marine Corps Installations Command Modernization and Development Directorate.
I-werX’s mission is re-imagining how technology and organizational processes can be made more efficient—to improve how Marine Corps bases operate and, ultimately, enhance the overall readiness of warfighters themselves. Essentially, if a base runs well, then its warfighters will, too. I-werX is working to prove this idea through extensive research and experimentation, and the cultivation of meaningful partnerships.
If these sound like talking points from a venture-capital firm or Silicon Valley company, that’s by design. I-werX relies on insights and expertise from players in private industry, academia, government and community development—to craft approaches for streamlining installation services and creating a “base of the future.”
Potential improvements include using renewable energy to reduce food and power waste—as well as increasing alternative transportation options like ride-sharing, bike-sharing and drone delivery.
I-werX is an excellent example of the creativity and collaboration underlying the Department of the Navy’s (DoN) new Naval Expeditions (NavalX) Agility Office, which was created by the Hon. James Geurts, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition.
The mission of NavalX is to empower Sailors, Marines, and DoN civilians with the tools needed to deliver ideas into action. This will enable every organization to better connect Sailors and Marines who have innovative ideas with experts who can experiment with those ideas, invest in them, or help turn them into something tangible for the Navy and Marine Corps.
To unlock better business models and create collaborative opportunities with industry and government agencies, the Marine Corps named Newell as I-werX’s West Coast lead in 2018. Newell is a communications officer with expertise in energy efficiency and renewable energy.
Newell’s assignment resulted from an academic article—titled “The Future of Mobility for Military Installations—he wrote while serving a one-year tour as a Military Fellow at The Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
The article promoted better business models for expanding transportation services in and around installations—such as car- and ride-sharing, carpooling and autonomous vehicles. This would lessen the need for personal and government vehicles, and reduce gate delays and on-base traffic. This is the same logic behind the Olli shuttle project at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall.
A day after reading Newell’s article, Lt. Gen. Michael G. Dana—then the Marine Corps’ deputy commandant for Installations and Logistics—contacted Newell to arrange an in-person meeting. Dana wanted Newell to move to San Diego and cultivate partnership opportunities with that city.
Choosing San Diego as a technology partner was strategic. A few years ago, National Geographic magazine named the city as a one of the “World Smart Cities” for its use of technology to improve operations, customer service and public safety.
The Marine Corps also viewed San Diego as fertile ground for collaborative innovation because of the density of the military community (for example, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and Marine Corps Air Stations Miramar and San Diego) and the proximity to Silicon Valley and West Coast technology centers.
“There is no greater honor than being given an opportunity to help shape an organization that you love,” said Newell. “Working with I-werX allows me to apply my creativity, passion and skill to honing the future of the Marine Corps by breaking down bureaucratic barriers.”
A string of successes
Barriers shatter regularly under Newell’s watch. For example, he teamed up with the San Diego Association of Governments to establish an app-enabled, carpooling service to serve the local civilian and military populations.
Marine Corps Community Services established one-year contracts with Lyft for ride-hailing on Camp Pendleton, and with LimeBike for bike-sharing on MCAS Miramar.
Other I-werX efforts included working with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to hold counter-intrusion technology demonstrations at Camp Pendleton—and with the Federal Aviation Authority and the City of San Diego to better understand drone operations and regulation in the region.
If those activities weren’t enough, on May 7-9 Newell and the I-werX team will host the Installation neXt Mobility Symposium at MCAS Miramar—spotlighting mobility technology and services of interest to the Department of Defense. Highlights will include exhibits of autonomous vehicles, electric tactical vehicles and drone technology, as well as panels covering different aspects of the future of mobility.
For his efforts, Newell won the Innovation Leadership category of the 2017 Secretary of the Navy Innovation Awards.
“My reward is every day, when I’m reminded of the chance Lt. Gen. Dana took on me, and being part of this bold initiative,” said Newell. “Having the commander’s intent to push beyond business as usual enables me to help keep the flame of innovation burning.
“My hope is that these successes inspire Marines to find and cultivate opportunities wherever they are,” he continued.
Warren Duffie Jr. is a contractor for Corporate Strategic Communications at the Office of Naval Research.