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Beyond the Board: new AI innovations in digital scheduling

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Ashley Thrash
  • Department of the Air Force AI Accelerator

Pilots and mobility personnel around the workforce depend on schedules as their backbone to ensure the mission continues; flight scheduling, mission tracking, leave, currency, exercises, events. Until a few years ago, scheduling was manually drafted on a whiteboard. It was up to a few people to move around “pucks” and determine when people could fly, schedule needed training, and deconflict everyone’s schedule. 

Squadrons saw a need to innovate and create a way to cut down on the time and resources required to support the heavy lifting of scheduling. This is what led to the creation of Puckboard. The Puckboard application digitizes this physical whiteboard that contains a highly collaborative and complicated process. 

Puckboard originally began as a Defense Innovation Unit effort to connect units across the joint force tasked to tackle scheduling from different services and various communities. After receiving initial funding, a combined team from the 15th Wing in Hawaii and the US Marine Corps set out to begin addressing this problem through software.

Maj. Eric Robinson, Development Chief for Artificial Intelligence Assisted Scheduling for the Department of the Air Force-Massachusetts Institute of Technology AI Accelerator, is currently supporting the Puckboard team.

“One of the big pieces of work we’ve been doing, especially led by the AI Accelerator, is really working on the explainability and workflow,” said Robinson. “How do we simultaneously capture a concept of value and communicate that back to the users, not just overwrite what schedulers want, how do we build an intelligent recommendation system that captures the reality that scheduling is a uniquely collaborative effort taking into account interests from all hundred to two hundred people in a squadron.”

Puckboard has gone through many iterations from prototype through scaled production application, and is still being improved to enhance the user experience. The AI-Assisted Optimization of Training Schedules research team has been able to translate the nuances of the military domain to targeted stakeholders and interface with technically minded users.

One of the current phantoms, 2nd Lt. Luke Kenworthy, contributed to an important research advancement during his previous internship at the AIA. He, along with other MIT researchers, developed Neural Network Integer Program Coefficient Extraction, or NICE, a new technique that combines reinforcement learning and integer programming to tackle the problem of robust scheduling.

Through the AIA’s research advancements and from extensive user feedback over Puckboard’s lifespan, improvements to the application have made Puckboard a platform that more and more users around the workforce will want to use.

“You shouldn’t wait until you have a perfect product to release it,” said Robinson. “If we had waited until we had a perfect product, Puckboard would not exist today and 20,000 people would still be scheduling with white boards or spreadsheets.”

Capt. Kelsey Dees, currently assigned to the 618th Air Operations Center as their airlift recovery division chief, is a C-17 pilot by trade. She encouraged her previous shop toward utilizing Puckboard and drove them away from the antiquated methods of an old whiteboard with physical pucks. 

“A week after I showed up, there was a big fire at Travis AFB and the entire base had to evacuate,” said Dees. “Due to not being in the shop, I wasn’t able to see the air crew assignments, so I took a screenshot of our physical whiteboard before I left and I used this gap as a way to roll out a digital scheduling tool at Travis.”

Dees was the change agent in her office to drive her unit at Travis toward using Puckboard. She was able to invest in the application early and provided needed end user feedback to the Puckboard team, resulting in a better product for the mobility community.  

“Whenever we are dealing with people and the uniqueness of what we care about and how operations exist,” said Robinson. “You have to take that into consideration. Because at the end of the day, if they don’t use the system that we make, then the system that we made was wrong to begin with.”

At the upcoming Airlift Tanker Association Convention in Denver, Colorado, October 27-30, attendees will have the opportunity to engage with the Puckboard team, ask questions and learn more about the application. Also, the team plans to unveil a brand new feature for the flight scheduling arena involving currency, and showcase initial designs for intelligent recommendations--a feature planning to be made available in early 2023.