How innovation cells in Army combat units are harnessing soldiers’ ideas
Four divisions are turning projects around in record time, from leashed drones to mold trackers.
Heads turned at Fort Irwin’s training ranges earlier this year when the 3rd Infantry Division arrived with quadcopters tethered to their Bradley Fighting Vehicles, providing extra eyes in the sky.
The Hoverfly drones weren’t provided by one of the Pentagon’s multi-year, billion-dollar initiatives. Instead, they were obtained through the 3rd ID’s Marne Innovations program, one of four cells established in various divisions to gather troops’ ideas and generate low-cost solutions.
In the past, the only way to bring a soldier’s idea to life would be “to go spend your own cash towards it,” said Maj. Ben Hall of the 101st Airborne Division’s EagleWerx.
Like the other cells set up since 2021—the 25th Infantry Division’s Lightning Labs and the 82nd Airborne Division’s Innovation Lab—Marne Innovations and EagleWerx tend to focus on efforts far smaller than a typical Pentagon program.
“We're not coming up with the next helicopter,” said Hall.
Still, the cells are moving forward on major products, from wheeled battery packs with enough charge for a house to sensors that measure mold in barracks.
The small teams of soldiers staffing the cells gather ideas from their division-mates via web form, email, and even just reaching out to former squadmates.
“We have a lot of connections back there, so it’s easy for us to just go back and be with our friends in the field or go and just talk to them and see what their problems are,” said EagleWerx’s Lt. Eden Lawson.
Soldiers may also find it easier to share problems with other soldiers from their unit rather than fact-finding missions from the Pentagon, said Capt. Christopher Flournoy of the 3rd ID.
“I've experienced the whole breadth of the problems that we face as our organization,” Flournoy said. “It’s easy to walk into a motor pool and talk to a soldier and understand their problem.”
Once they’ve identified a need—or better yet, received a soldier’s pitch for a solution—the cell staff checks to see whether any other Army office is working on it. If not, they have several ways to proceed. Sometimes the staff itself can help, revving up its 3D printers to produce a new part or tool. Sometimes they toss a problem to one of the universities that have offered to help. Sometimes they turn to the non-profit Civil-Military Innovation Institute, or CMI2, which can search for a commercially available fix or even task onsite contractors working with the cells to think up solutions.
The cells’ ability to quickly get commercial technology via CMI2 is “unheard of in the Army,” said Flournoy, describing how a contractor ordered components off Amazon for a prototype device to measure mold growth in the barracks.
The 3rd ID’s tethered-drone project began when the division’s intelligence section realized that cavalry scouts lacked ways to remotely gather information, thus exposing them to enemy fire. Cavalry scouts perform reconnaissance into enemy lines, and can be the first to make contact with an enemy.
Marne Innovations, working with the Army’s Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office and the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Task Force, obtained four drones for the cavalry scouts to experiment with.
The drones were such a success at the Fort Irwin training exercise that the project has received phase one funding from the Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office, and some units took the drones to Europe for their deployment to further test them, said Flournoy.
“Our next big push is to increase the awareness that we do need more drones in our formations," said Flournoy, who said 3rd ID is slated to receive small quadcopters from the Army in 2026. The Army “can’t afford to lose a whole platoon of tanks because we didn't look over the next hill."
In addition to the tethered drone, Marne Innovations worked with the University of Georgia Tech to develop a decoy vehicle that mimics a Bradley’s electronic and heat signature. After a successful test in January, the unit took the device to a training rotation in February, Flournoy said.
Among EagleWerx’s designs, meanwhile, is a 3D-printed device that allows mortars to be fired without the dangerous use of a finger to help aiming. A separate program involves working with contractors to replace a cable that frequently breaks on the M119 howitzer.
Problems can be specific to a unit’s area of operations. The 25th Infantry Division’s Lighting Labs, for instance, is testing out wheeled portable battery packs, which should allow it to ship less diesel fuel and remain in the field for longer.
“There are a lot of challenges in this theater that are different,” than those faced in Europe, said the cell’s Maj. Jason Hinds, who also outlined a plan to test a more breathable body armor for the heat of the Pacific.
Other lessons are more universal. EagleWerx and Marne Innovations have worked with their divisions’ equipment-repair units to make sure everyone knows how to use their shops’ 3D printers.
The ability to send 3D-printing designs is also a boon. The mortar-aiming device designed in EagleWerx is now being shared to units deployed to Europe, allowing them to produce the devices in the field.
“We can just shoot an email with that file and have our folks over there go ahead and print that off,” said EagleWerx’s Lawson.
Some ideas may remain within a unit, while others may be sent up to the program offices responsible for funding larger Army innovation. The cells’ members say they are learning to navigate Army bureaucracy while holding the relatively junior ranks of lieutenants and captains.
They also say they’ve seen strong support from commanders—and even from more senior officers. At one conference, Eden used an opportunity to break through a deadlock and directly appeal to six general officers for assistance on several projects.
“I got a serious chuckle out of some of these general officers that were like, wow, that took a lot of guts,” she said. “What was born out of that is they connected us directly to their executive officers. And they've been nothing but helpful through this whole process.”
The impact of such cells amid the lengthy development timelines of the Pentagon, of course, is hard to measure. The cells have been around for only two years, while Army technologies can spend years in development before contracts are even awarded.
The long-term prospects of the innovation cells are ultimately down to the Army’s ability to pick and fund the most promising, said Jerry McGinn, a former senior career official in the Defense Department, who said he favored a proposal for a $1 billion government-run defense hedge fund.
“I don't think we have an innovation problem,” McGinn said. “It's about: how do we then get to the scale?”