Yokota airmen’s underground mapping software wins Air Force innovation competition
Stars and Stripes March 23, 2023
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Underground mapping software developed by airmen at this airlift hub in western Tokyo took first place at a competition aiming to promote innovation and creativity within the Air and Space Forces.
The winning entry, Infrastructure in an Augmented Reality World, pairs augmented reality technology with microwave scanning to create underground maps. The maps are used to identify subterranean infrastructure that is not accurately mapped on military bases; they can also identify sinkholes.
The airmen made their successful Spark Tank pitch on March 8 during the Air and Space Forces Association 2023 Warfare Symposium in Aurora, Colo.
The team includes Lt. Col. Mark Wagner, commander of the 374th Contracting Squadron; Master Sgt. Sarah Hubert, superintendent of religious affairs for the 374th Air Wing; and Tech. Sgt. Raymond Zgoda, a civil engineer with the wing.
Their invention surpassed more than 235 ideas submitted through the Guardians and Airmen Innovation Network and six that were presented at the symposium.
Hubert thought of the idea in May 2022 when YokoWERX, an innovation lab at the air base, sponsored a trip to a Tokyo trade show.
“I saw this technology at one of the booths and started geeking out about it and stuck my phone through the glasses, got a picture of it and thought it was amazing technology,” she told Stars and Stripes Wednesday.
Months later, Hubert realized she needed help from civil engineering to complete her pitch.
“In the Air Force there isn’t a great map system of all buried utilities, pipes, electrical lines, communication lines; and most of the utilities that we have are buried underground,” Zgoda said.
The location of underground utility lines buried during the initial construction of many U.S. air bases originally appeared on hand-drawn maps, Zgoda said. When the Air Force digitized those maps, it stitched together short sections from many maps into one digital map.
“What ended up happening is the maps are very far off from what we what we actually dig in the ground,” Zgoda said. “There will be extra pipes and extra lines that we didn't account for and that ends up getting hit and then power goes out to a building or communication goes out in a building. And it causes us a lot, a lot, of issues.”
Much like on the ABC TV network show “Shark Tank,” in which contestants seeking investment funding pitch ideas to celebrity entrepreneurs, the Air Force Spark Tank competitors have three minutes to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges.
“There were over a dozen, maybe two dozen different script rewrites that we wrote over the month preceding it,” Zgoda said.
Now the team is after funding to produce its software.
Hubert said the military must continue to find new, innovative ideas.
“We can't stay stagnant and doing something just because that's the way it's always been done,” she said. “As technology emerges and the commercial world changes, we need to change alongside that to become a more lethal and agile military.”