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Memphis Airman selected as finalist in AF Spark Tank Competition

Wednesday, February 14, 2018 | 08:15am

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – An Airman from the Tennessee Air National Guard’s 164th Airlift Wing is one of six finalists in the Air Force’s Spark Tank Competition and is scheduled to showcase his idea at the Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium on Feb. 22, in Orlando, Fla.

Memphis resident, Master Sgt. Thomas Crider, the superintendent for the Maintenance Operations Center at the 164th AW, developed a maintenance operations and training augmented reality (MOTAR) system. The system is like something you would expect to be developed by Tony Stark in “Iron Man”.

“It involves using augmented reality goggles, which are worn over the eyes, that allow you to see through them and still interact with your environment while having data and graphics over what you are seeing,” said Crider, who has been part of the aircraft maintenance career field since he joined the Air Force in 1991. He also worked as an IT programmer, implementing computerized radiography for six years between his time serving with the active component and when he joined the Tennessee Air National Guard in 1999.

With MOTAR, when a maintainer is performing a task, they will save time from having to look at manuals or a computer by having the information right in front of them while they are working.

“Time is a commodity that we cannot produce more of; but we can implement innovations that reduce the time required to perform certain tasks,” he said.

While this seems like futuristic technology, Crider’s innovation is based on off-the-shelf, already commercially available merchandise systems such as the Microsoft HoloLens and the HTC View. By using what is already available, integration is cheaper and production is faster. Interfacing existing augmented reality systems with interactive electronic technical manual data unveils a host of new possibilities to maintainers, operators and trainees by enhancing ergonomics in the work environment.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel. We are moving forward with technologies we’re already using and that our maintainers are already familiar with,” he said. “I have started to develop the actual applications that will be used to bring this from my vision to a reality.”

Crider can speak to the utilization of this technology in his Air National Guard career field because he has already conducted some proof of concept testing. He is also working with a consultant in Silicon Valley to further produce MOTAR and get it into the hands of military maintainers faster.

“I came up with the initial concept back in the late 1990s,” he said. “I was very interested in virtual reality applications.”

After some technological advancements over the years, he was able to start developing concepts and putting his ideas to work in 2010. He first proposed the MOTAR concept in 2011 and began presenting it for the C-17 maintenance community in 2012.

Due to overwhelming support from his command on his idea, he was able to continue to develop his concept and practice with an actual product in his work area. He has also put it into the hands of his fellow Airmen.

“Because of the visual and audible cues, there will be a reduced likelihood of missed steps,” said Lt. Col. Johnny Howard, commander, 164th Maintenance Group. “It will greatly enhance aircraft system troubleshooting procedures, and has the potential to change the way we do business in aircraft maintenance.”

The system keeps the user’s hands free to perform their work. This is a huge advancement for the safety of personnel not only in maintenance, but in other career fields as well. Augmented reality systems restore readiness by improving mission safety, efficiency and capability across multiple weapons systems.

By superimposing computer graphics and technical data over the real-world, while still allowing the user to interact with the world around them, augmented reality provides tangible benefits to Airmen performing technical tasks, making the delivery of technical data seamless and non-obtrusive. For example, through the use of overlaid graphics, text and video, maintainers can highlight dangerous areas to avoid around aircraft.

“When approaching a running engine, you can have a red line rotating around the engine, showing you where the danger zones are,” said Crider. “Or, when an aircraft is running radar, you could have a virtual coordinate to keep people from wandering into an area that they’re not supposed to wander into.”

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson first announced the Air Force’s Spark Tank competition during the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference on Sept. 18, 2017.

The competition was conducted in a multi-step approach starting with participants submitting their idea through a website. Each major command selected two innovative ideas within their commands to compete at the headquarters level.

When Wilson spoke at the 2017 Logistics Officer Association Symposium on Nov. 17, 2017, she said, “Logistics and maintenance win wars. What new tools will change the air dominance…ask yourself that and then go out and build it.”

MOTAR is a solution. Augmented reality is a game-changing technology that will have sweeping ramifications across the Air Force enterprise.

“This system will speed up training, improve maintenance velocity and improve operational safety in a cost effective way, while restoring our readiness and modernizing the Air Force, no, ‘futurizing’ the Air Force,” said Crider.

“The pace of change is accelerating and the Air Force knows the next generation of innovators are the ones who will take us into our future,” Wilson said. “I know the true source of our military might is not merely in the investments we make but in the courage and ingenuity of our people, and the innovative spirit that has made our Armed Forces the envy of the world.”

Master Sgt. Thomas P. Crider

Master Sgt. Thomas P. Crider