"Onward with Valor"
Lt. j.g. Kaitlin O’Donnell speaks during the Oct. 25 meeting of “The Athena Project” in Point Loma, Calif. Photo by Fire Controlman 2nd Class Shawn Truesdale
USS Benfold: Waterfront ‘Athena’ Back for More
By Sonar Technician (Surface) 2nd Class (SW) Gina A. Stevens, USS Benfold
Tucked away in the industrial sector of Point Loma, a grassroots innovation initiative aimed to make the Navy better took place Oct. 25 as the third installment of the ever-growing think tank “The Athena Project.”

“It’s been inspiring to see what began as a lightbulb idea get such great support from the waterfront,” said Lt. David Nobles, the weapons officer aboard USS Benfold (DDG 65) and one of the founders of ‘The Athena Project.’ “The great thing is that it doesn’t belong to Benfold anymore, it’s everyone’s.”

With representatives from 12 sea commands as well as several shore commands, organizations and progressive companies, The Athena Project has fulfilled its promise to bring together the free thinkers and the engineers who can make their dreams a reality.

“It’s about making good into great,” said Sonar Technician (Surface) 2nd Class Megan Lunt about the presentations.

Each innovator was given five minutes to explain his or her idea and once finished the audience had the opportunity to ask questions and give feedback. Like the previous installations, all participants judged each project on three basic criteria: idea quality, group presentation and actionability. Once the grading sheets were submitted Athena participants took the opportunity to network and discuss the projects.

“That’s part of what’s so cool about Athena,” said Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Jacob Niessen. “It’s like you’ve got the problems and the solutions all in one room!”

In a close vote, Nobles announced the winners of the Adm. William Sims Award for Intellectual Courage to a group of three second class petty officers that presented a concept called the Optical Database and Information Network (ODIN). ODIN was the brainchild born from exasperated watchstanders.

“We have face-recognition on our cell phones, why don’t we take that and use it to identify contacts instead?” said Fire Controlman 2nd Class Michael Owen. “Sometimes the computer can see more than we can, we want to use that fact.”

Not only did the group of fire controlmen walk away with the award, but also with command backing to create a small, functional team to further develop their concept.

“This initiative belongs to anyone who wants to make a difference,” said Cmdr. Rich LeBron, Benfold’s commanding officer. “The fact that Junior Sailors won this installment, coupled with previous winner Ensign Rob McClenning, proves our initial theory about Athena’s success that motivation to strengthen the Navy drives this movement, not rank structure. It’s this type of mindset that will propel great innovation throughout the fleet.”

While ODIN came out on top, it certainly didn’t overshadow any of the other great ideas. Whether it was a reapplication of personality tests for the purpose of divisional officer evaluations, automated celestial navigation, or utilizing augmented reality headsets to improve crew served weapons mounts, nothing was out-of-bounds.

Project Athena’s momentum is only matched by the enthusiasm of its participants. Created as an outlet for those who care and want to make a difference, Athena is truly living up to its potential.

The ideas presented in Point Loma, recorded on Google, backed by companies such as SPAWAR, ONR, the Southern California Institute of Creative Technologies and graded by peers could one day make all the difference in the world. Innovations in navigation, sonar and radar could really make an impact on a ship in the middle of the ocean and programs for intellectual and professional growth could change a Sailor’s life.

“Sure, the ideas are great, but the best part of Athena is that it’s helping to create a cadre of young Sailors who think differently and approach problems in new and inventive ways,” said Nobles. “I think we could use a lot of that in the Navy today so that we can build the fleet of tomorrow.”
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