Senior Master Sgt. Powell Crider saw a need to revolutionize the way the Air Force does aircraft maintenance. The Air National Guardsmen envisioned maintainers wearing augmented reality goggles that enable them to see pertinent data and graphics as they complete a task without dividing their attention between a computer monitor and the aircraft they are working on. The goggles would free up both hands, making it easier for maintainers to work on the aircraft.
For years, he spent his free time developing the concept, and in 2012 he started “socializing” the idea of using augmented reality for maintenance operations and training. He talked with industry to see what commercial off-the-shelf technology could easily be utilized and attended numerous Air Force conferences on maintenance training and operations. At the time, Crider owned and operated a toy and game store in his civilian life and worked as a flight flight line superintendent for the 164th Airlift Wing out of Memphis, Tenn., while on Guard duty.
It took six years for the Air Force to pick up the idea.
Crider, then a master sergeant, was selected to represent the Air National Guard during the inaugural Spark Tank competition at AFA’s 2018 Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla. Although his idea didn’t win the competition, it did catch the attention of then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, who picked it as her favorite.
Technology Changed the Way We Learn
The development of the iPod in 2001 and iPad in 2010 revolutionized the way information could be presented and shared. The devices meant information could be more easily bundled and modularized, and the interface between a student and the learning tool could take advantage of a color display, video, a camera, speakers, and other features. But the way the Air Force presents information to the force, has largely stayed the same.
Eighteen-year-olds coming into the service today were in preschool when Apple released the iPad.
“I had crayons and construction paper; they’re required to have an iPad as part of the training,” said Maj. Jesse Johnson, commander of Air Education and Training Command’s Detachment 23, which falls under the command’s new innovation directorate.
“We have to recognize in the Air Force that every year after this year, it’s going to be harder and harder to teach students in our traditional methods. We’re not going to be able to give them that PDF and tell them to learn from it. They’re going to look at and go, ‘Yeah, what’s this,’ and throw it away. Then they’re going to want to Google it,” Johnson added. “The teacher or the instructor is no longer the smartest person or entity in the classroom—my smartphone is. We have to capitalize on that. We have to start building our training, so that those Airmen can connect to our training the way they connect to the rest of their life.”
The human brain reaches its full physical size around the age of 11 for girls and 14 for boys, but the brain continues to develop through a person’s mid-20s. Johnson said between the ages of 18 and 25 a person is still learning how to apply what they learn. This is the stage, he said, when learning styles become truly part of the individuals’ personalities.
That’s also the primary recruiting age for the U.S. military. Col. Thomas Wegner, head of AETC’s analysis and innovation directorate, which includes Det. 23, said the Air Force needs to think now about how to train tomorrow’s Airmen.
“The Air Force, and maybe in DOD, we only think about [Future Years Defense Program]. We don’t think beyond the FYDP,” he said. “But, unless we’re thinking about what the Air Force is going to look like in the year 2040, and how we’re going to train Airmen in the year 2040, then work backward through programs like MOTAR, we’re still going to be using death by PowerPoint.”
“When she held up the name of my project, I knew I was funded,” Crider told Air Force Magazine during a 2021 visit to Washington, D.C.: Originally called “Maintenance Operations and Training in Augmented Reality” (MOTAR), Crider’s program has evolved over the years. The MOTAR acronym now stands for “Member Operations Training Analytics and Reports.” It has become a one-stop shop for aumented and virtual reality training prgrams within the Air Education and Training Command.
Now, those working on MOTAR are shopping it around to other major commands, and marketing its potential applications across the entire Department of the Air Force in the hopes of keeping it alive until it can become an official program of record.
The new technology, developed by Dynepic, Inc., collects user data into a single interface, creating digital training records for Airmen, and includes live learning dashboards so instructors can monitor students’ progress.
It is the only Spark Tank concept—so far—to become a validated requirement. But MOTAR must first make it through what AFWERX, the Air Force’s innovation arm, refers to as the “valley of death”—the complicated and time-consuming period where a program attempts to transfer from development to sustainment.
After the Spark Tank Contest, Crider was given about $500,000, put in contact with representatives at Google and AFWERX to help further define his pilot concept, and then placed on Active-duty orders to see the project through. AFWERX’s 2019 Mixed Reality Challenge asked companies to make MOTAR a reality. More than 120 companies submitted proposals, and three were selected for the first design sprint cycle, including Dynepic, on whose DX system MOTAR is now based.
Dynepic won a series of Small Business Innovation Research phase one and two contracts, then a multi-year phase 3 contract supporting Air Education and Training Command’s Maintenance Training Next program, which has since evolved into Technical Training Next.
During the pilot program, MOTAR powered a revamped Crew Chief Fundamentals Course at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, with a single login and consolidated dashboard for various augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR) applications. The web-based, device-agnostic platform also hosted 360-degree videos, documents, and assessments so participants in the crew chief course could learn the way that suited them best.
Stages of the Adolescent Brain
Embryo to about 4 years old: Human brains are growing and learning how to make connections. During this phase, a child’s relationship to the world is based on the five senses and their connection to their parents. That’s all they know and it’s how memory is stored, but it’s not the deeper memories we have as adults.
From age 4 to about 14 years: The brain undergoes a process called synapses pairing, where you figure out how to learn. During this stage, the brain deconstructs all those synapses to figure out what resonates and how to store memory. That’s why “most people can’t remember anything prior to the age of five,” Johnson said. “It’s also the reason kindergarten starts at age 5. It’s actually science.”
From 18 to 25: The brain starts to go through synapses pairing again and begins developing the medial prefrontal cortex, which plays a critical role in cognative functions such as attention, habit forming, spatial and long-term memory, and impulse control.
Maj. Jesse Johnson, commander of AETC’s Det. 23, which is leading the innovation push behind the Technical Training Next initiative, said the original goal in the Crew Chief Fundamentals Course was to prove that Airmen could learn in virtual reality. Once they proved that was possible, they handed that mission over to the schoolhouse tasked with training crew chiefs and started looking at how the Air Force can scale this new technology to every single Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC), and how it can make it available quickly.
That “led us down the path of building a massive Airman learning record that can house all of our student performance data, and then layering that with artificial intelligence that can help commanders make better-informed decisions,” Johnson said.
During the Crew Chief Fundamentals Course, the small, 11-person team that makes up Det. 23 “had this epiphany,” Johnson added. “If you could real-time monitor student performance inside that environment, you could do the same thing at a higher, more aggregate level.”
And, if you can monitor an Airman or Guardian’s training completion in real-time, commanders can quickly identify and fill capability gaps. This could not only vastly improve response time during a contingency, it can also be used to build multi-capable Airmen.
Multi-capable Airmen are a key component in Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.’s Accelerate Change or Lose directive, which not only calls for quicker innovation, but also new ways of operating. Future deployments likely will be based on the Agile Combat Employment concept, where small teams of Airmen will operate at dispersed locations around the globe, making it more difficult for an adversary to target USAF assets and personnel.
But this approach requires Airmen to wear multiple hats. “I might not have the 18 maintainers that I need to operate the aircraft” in an Agile Combat Employment environment, Johnson said. “But I do have some logistics planning folks, and I do have some security forces folks, and if I can cross utilize those skill sets from one AFSC to another, I can build that multi-capable Airman.”
So, if a particular mission requires all Airmen on a deployment to know how to marshal aircraft, for example, a commander or training manager can log into MOTAR, see which Airmen have already completed that competency, and load a virtual training program onto the other Airmen’s training records that teaches them how to accomplish the task. Those Airmen can then log on and complete the training while deployed, adding that competency to their record.
“So, now I have a group of Airmen who have a variety of different AFSCs, but they share a central core multi-capable Airman skill set—the basic things I want to operate in an austere environment,” Johnson noted.
The same thing can be applied to a contingency situation. When Hurricane Michael nearly destroyed Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., in October 2018, it took the Air Force several weeks to pull together the right contingency response team with all the AFSCs needed to assess the damage and start to put the base back together again. MOTAR could put a similar team together in 10 minutes, said Johnson.
“If our system can read the training records of every Airman and compare it to a mission, why can’t I have a commander just on the spot, write a mission, have the AI analyze it, and tell that commander who they have at their disposal that can execute the mission,” Johnson asked. “That’s pretty much where we’re at now.”
Navigating the Valley of Death
Under the traditional acquisition system, the Air Force identifies a requirement it needs to fill a certain gap, and then asks industry to solve that problem. But the process is flipped under the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.
“We knew the problem. We had already solved the problem,” Johnson said. “Now we’re kind of going back and cleaning up the paperwork,” to re-insert the program back into the traditional acquisition system.
In September, Johnson went to AETC’s Requirements Oversight Council (ROC), to validate the requirement for “delivering, analyzing, and reporting on modern training efforts.”
Though the ROC typically validates a requirement, not a product, in this case it did both.
“In U.S. Code 15, it says that if you use a small business contract to develop a capability, you are legally required to use it, you cannot recompete it under another process,” according to Johnson. “So, the ROC, knowing that, said, ‘Not only is delivery of analysis and reporting capability validated, MOTAR, as the solution for that delivery analysis reporting capability, is validated, too, because you used a SBIR phase three [contract].’”
Though it’s a new requirement, MOTAR is actually the fourth attempt at developing such a capability. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency built the first iteration in 2007—the same year Apple introduced the iPad, which quickly shifted the way information is consumed “from being centralized and bundled to modular and mobile,” Johnson pointed out. The second and third attempts, both through AETC in 2015 and 2018, respectively, took that into consideration. But none have become an official program of record.
Col. Thomas Wegner, head of AETC’s analysis and innovation directorate, says he currently has development dollars for MOTAR, but now that the command has validated the requirement, he needs sustainment funding in order for the program to become operational.
“We have a validated requirement that people want, that’s not in the POM [program objective memorandum,]” the Defense Department’s five-year budget plan, Wegner said. “So, the only way to keep it alive is for me to go back to [AETC Commander Lt. Gen. Marshall B. “Brad] Webb and ask him for some of his commander’s withhold on the year of execution. We’re keeping it alive with a year of execution dollars until we can get into the pot.”
Wegner said he put MOTAR in the Future Years Defense Program for fiscal 2024, but that’s still two years away, and the Air Force still needs to rack and stack MOTAR’s capability against everything else included in the POM.
That’s why the team is shopping MOTAR around to the rest of the Air Force.
Some 300 people from various commands, including AETC, Air Combat Command, Air Force Special Operations Command, and the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center attended the first MOTAR Expo at Joint Base San Antonio’s Kelly Field on Nov. 4.
The expo offered Air Force units a chance to share how they are using the platform and showed those considering adopting AR/VR tech in the future ways it might be useful for them. Air Force representatives had a chance to interact with 28 different MOTAR vendors and learn how they are advancing immersive technologies and using the MOTAR platform to rapidly distribute it.
“What we’re looking to do here is to get cross communication between all of the different parties … and learn lessons from each other, share progress with each other,” Margaret Merkle, AFLCMC’S chief innovation officer for simulators, told Air Force Magazine. “What MOTAR brings to bear on this is the fact that we can share digital assets underneath these various projects to allow each project to build faster toward their end point and not repeat steps early in the development cycle.”
Merkle said the service is striving to bring together various digital training assets and capabilities into one platform so Airmen can access them from anywhere, anytime they need it.
“Today, things are stovepiped in certain areas where they are developed, and that’s very hard to … reach back into those records from different disparate systems,” she said. “This gives us a platform to make that connectivity of all that performance data for those Airmen across the commands,” and though training remains with the individual major commands, Merkle said, “We see this as a tool to enable that to be done easier and delivered more quickly.”
Merkle offered the example of taking an aircraft offline to make digital scans of it. Those scans can then be shared with different entities looking to build training programs centered around that aircraft. One group may be looking to build a training program to teach the proper way to load weapons on that aircraft, while another will teach how to maintain it, and yet another could use the simulation for pilot training.
“We could take that one digital model and share it with all three of those projects,” Merkle said. “And each one of them will progress a little faster because they don’t have to do the same things over and over again.”
Andrea Hagen, a program analyst with Air Combat Command’s Capability Development Engine Room, said that although the command is much earlier in the process than AETC, the platform could one day play into ACC’s Reforge fighter pilot training plan. Reforge looks to cut in half the time needed to transform a recently graduated student pilot into a fighter flight lead by pairing the new T-7 Red Hawk’s in-jet simulation capability with ground-based virtual reality and artificial intelligence.
“One of the things we are missing is a [Learning Management Sytem] we can use across different FTU schoolhouses,” Hagen said. “We have multiple around ACC. They’re kind of all doing their own thing, but we’re looking for one common platform, and MOTAR kind of fits that bill.”
The team held a similar event in Virginia in December, as it touted MOTAR’s benefits to those tackling similar challenges inside the Pentagon.
“The Air Force is a busy environment, everybody has job jars that are overflowing, we’re extremely busy, and to ask somebody to add innovation to their job jar, when it’s overflowing already, is sometimes a bridge too far,” Johnson said. “And if there’s not an interest and a passion in that person to do it, where they’re willing to commit the extra time and hours to that effort, then it gets lost. And this is part of the reason I believe that we haven’t innovated so far.”
Johnson said senior leadership support is key to “getting over that hump.” The Chief of Staff has empowered Airmen to think outside of the box and to be innovative, and that’s making its way down through the chain of command.
“What we’re doing here, is we’re coming back to the folks in the building across the street, where it’s their job to solve these things, but they’re so overwhelmed, and saying, ‘Hey, I solved 50 of your 100 problems. Tell me the other 50 so I can figure out how to solve those, too.’” Johnson said. “So, we’re here to … provide support, tell them, ‘Hey, somebody is doing this.’ But we’re also here to provide that pressure on the people standing in the way.”
Crider, who’s the brainchild behind MOTAR, was also at the December event, now as a member of Det. 23. When asked what it’s like to see his idea finally start to get real traction in the Air Force, he said, “It’s fantastic. I wanted to go faster, but the problem that we’re seeing across the board in the innovation space, and this isn’t just this project, it’s all over the board, is that the bureaucracy says it’s ready for innovation, but it’s not. We still have so many layers of bureaucracy that we have to cut through to get things to happen.”