TAMPA — From the outside, U.S. Special Operations Command’s latest attempt to find and test the best technology for its operators looks like one more downtown storefront here.
Inside, 3-D printers and half-built drones litter the 10,000-square-foot space, which was converted from an old tattoo parlor and former telephone book factory. High stools, wood tables and flat screens give it the look of Silicon Valley. The walls, however, are adorned with pictures of commandos in 1940s North Africa and mission dossiers from the CIA’s World War II precursor, the Office of Strategic Services. During a recent visit, a young intern was working on a device that uses radar to see through walls.
This is SOFWERX — a stylized name that roughly translates to Special Operations Forces Works — a Special Operations Command (SOCOM)-funded technology incubator that opened its doors at the end of 2015.
The easy-going vibe is meant to attract people who wouldn’t ordinarily think to work with SOCOM, according to SOFWERX director Tambrien Bates. A door next to an old cafe is a lot easier to walk into with an idea than, say, a base with armed sentries and a gate, said Bates.
“How do we keep apace with the exponential growth in our operations as well as technology, and where do you find a place where you can marry that all together?” asked James Geurts, SOCOM’s civilian officer in charge of acquisition, in a recent interview.
The relative accessibility of SOFWERX is because its day-to-day operations are run by the Doolittle Institute, a nonprofit organization that has a history of working with the U.S. military on innovation.
With only five full-time staff members, SOFWERX acts as a sort of marketplace, Bates says, so he can go out and find the type of people who might be able to come up with solutions for whatever project a Special Operations soldier, or anyone else, might bring in the door.
And while some of their projects include working on SOCOM’s TALOS suit —an Iron Man-like exoskeleton that should be prototype-ready in 2018 — it also includes a 3-D printable drone that a local Tampa man brought in recently.
The drone can change between a fixed-wing aircraft, a buggy and a quadcopter all with a small number of adjustments. According to Bates, the fact that it’s 3-D printable means that it could be easily fixable and replaceable in the field.
According to Bates, 3-D printers and their increasing ability to fabricate complicated pieces of equipment have made them an important part of SOCOM’s toolbox. So much so that SOFWERX has started offering a one-week course to Special Operations troops that covers the basics of fabrication, including how to 3-D print objects. The course is held at an old converted auto-body shop that has been dubbed DIRTYWERX, where aside from teaching their fabrication class, Bates and his crew work on prototyping larger projects and host team-based build-offs.
In addition to instructing troops about the technology, SOCOM has fielded Mobile Technology and Repair Centers, expanding containers that can deploy around the globe with welding equipment, sewing machines, mills and lathes, and 3-D printers.
According to Bates, the repair centers have worked on more than 30,000 projects, and there are 16 containers deployed worldwide.
The repair centers and their technicians are plugged into SOFWERX and allow Bates and his team to get feedback on the type of problem deployed operators are facing on a daily basis.
With $2 million in funding, SOFWERX is still relatively new. But Bates said that over time, he hopes to do more with less.
“I think we need to show high yield value,” Bates said. “My philosophy is: If I have to justify or show my metrics, I’ve already lost.”