Airmen team up across the force to make augmented reality a reality

  • Published
  • By Chris McCann
  • JBER Public Affairs

A jet engine is a complex machine with thousands of individual parts. Layers and layers of pipes, tubes, connectors, and electronics are invisible without taking things apart, making learning the anatomy difficult.

Airmen from the 3rd Maintenance Squadron have been working with Airmen from Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, and Shaw and Seymour Johnson Air Force bases in South and North Carolina respectively, to create augmented-reality glasses, which make learning the systems far easier, using Microsoft’s HoloLens system.

“It’s like Pokemon Go, or the display in Iron Man,” said U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Logan Belknap, who isn’t new to the Air Force maintainer world but is new to the F-22 Raptor and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

The HoloLens projects a display to the wearer as they look at the engine, offering interactive menus with information about the parts in view. It also displays parts in inner layers, so the wearer can better understand how things fit together.

“It’s still a beta version; it’s in its infancy,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Eric Macias, the 3rd MXS Propulsion Flight chief, who was instrumental in getting the HoloLens project off the ground. “We identified the need - we were still training like we were in the 1970s, with block-and-line diagrams. Innovating like this cuts the required time, and it works with all three learning styles - visual, auditory, and hands-on.” 

The headset can also be set to send its visual feed to a computer, so a supervisor can see what the trainee is looking at and provide assistance.

“Instead of being instructor-centric, driven by how someone teaches, this is student-centric,” Macias said. “It helps them learn much faster.”

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Dylan Dennehy, a Chicago native, has been in the Air Force two years, but has only been at JBER and working on F-22s since October. Learning the new engines is much easier with the HoloLens, he said. 

“It’s incredibly helpful,” he said. “We’ve been talking about the potential uses that could be coming in the near future, like exploded views of assemblies.”

The current iteration of the HoloLens was put together across the three different bases for different airframes. The Shaw maintainers built a virtual F-16 Fighting Falcon to demonstrate all the pins required when the jet is not in use, but which must be removed before flight. 

While a trainee using a paper or digital checklist may miss one, the HoloLens’s interactive display means the trainee can see each one on the virtual aircraft.

“It’s step-by-step, with nothing missing,” said Macias. “It removes the human error.” 

It’s also self-paced and more appealing than photographs.

Macias said the flight partnered with AFWERX, an Air Force program focused on innovation, receiving funding for one HoloLens headset and the programming of the engine parts.

The next stage will be more modules, with the ability to see and interact with more F-22 parts. Other installations involved in the project will also be getting more in-depth with the airframes they use.

The Air Force is moving to more virtual and augmented reality training, as it saves time and material, Macias said. 

“There’s a virtual painting booth in the Low Observable Flight,” he said. “When they paint, there’s a very long cure time when training stops. And of course, there’s hazardous materials. Doing that training virtually saves a lot of time and prevents that waste, but gives great practice.”

Increasingly, Macias said, these virtual tools are becoming organic to the Air Force instead of something purchased off the shelf; Airmen are learning to program virtual worlds for systems like Oculus.

“Our Airmen must be multi-capable and adaptable team builders, as well as innovative and courageous problem-solvers,” said Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. in his "Accelerate Change or Lose" strategy. “We must rise to the challenges of tomorrow’s highly competitive environment to deliver. We have done this before, and together we can do it again.”

The HoloLens initiative is just one way JBER Airmen are doing just that.