Lt. Col. Jason Turner, right, 80th Flying Training Wing director of Strategic Initiatives, helps MIT Reserve Officer Training Corps Cadet Ian Palmer guide a T-38C Talon through a mixed reality environment during a training session at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, Feb. 1, 2019. 

Apr 13 2020

Air Force Turns to VR, AR for Training and Maintenance

The service branch is rapidly expanding its testing of virtual and augmented reality solutions of both airmen and maintenance crews.

The Air Force entrusts its pilots with flying multimillion-dollar planes, and the production cost of a new range of fighter planes runs into the tens of billions. However, the Air Force is invested in a decidedly less costly set of technology solutions to ensure that those planes can be properly flown and maintained. 

Over the past year, the service branch has rapidly embraced both virtual reality and augmented reality solutions for its airmen and support crews. The technologies, which range from VR simulators to AR glasses, deliver a range of benefits for the Air Force. 

While VR produces a computer-generated reality that users can interact with (usually via a headset), augmented reality involves digital information being brought into a user’s field of view and overlaid onto the real world, which they observe usually through glasses or a smartphone’s camera.

VR simulators allow pilots to train without having to send aircraft into the air, saving significant costs without projecting capabilities to adversaries. Meanwhile, AR glasses for maintenance crews save time and make those workers more efficient. 

VR Lets Air Force Train Pilots on the Ground 

The Air Force Agency for Modeling and Simulation (AFAMS), established in 1996, is tasked with enhancing and leveraging modeling and simulation “to support and facilitate integrated, realistic and efficient operational training across warfighter domains to enhance full-spectrum readiness,” the Air Force notes

The unit is located in the Central Florida Research Park in Orlando, Fla., near other Defense Department, contractor and educational organizations focused on modeling and simulation. Over the past few decades, the Air Force has set up training ranges to do real air-to-air combat training. 

“The problem we have today is our enemies have got the same technology we have, and our ranges really don’t provide the same experiences they used to,” Col. Robert H. Epstein, commander of AFAMS, says in a DOD post

“We don’t want to give away all our capabilities by radiating in free space, so it’s driving us more and more to [figure out] how we can go into a virtualized synthetic environment to allow us to do that training that we think we’ll see in combat,” Epstein adds.

AFAMS is part of Team Orlando, a collaborative effort that includes all military branches, industry and academic organizations.

“We sit here within partnership buildings that house both military and University of Central Florida researchers and academics,” says David Wells, deputy director of the UCF Institute for Simulation and Training, in the post. “[We’re] all working together to improve modeling simulation.” 

“You have to be ready for what’s coming next, and that’s what the simulated environments we’re trying to create are going to drive us to,” Epstein adds. 

READ MORE: See how the Navy uses VR to train aircraft carrier crews. 

“It’s a digital age. Virtual reality is not uncommon. Rapid change is the norm right now. So, yes, VR and augmented reality technologies are of huge importance in the way we innovate moving on, because that’s what this generation is used to,” says Alethea Duhon, technical director at the Air Force Agency for Modeling Simulation, in the post. “Technology is catching up. We cannot slow down.”

The screen shows what a person wearing a virtual reality headset is doing in this maintenance training program demonstrated by aircraft maintainers Dec. 20. (U.S. Air Force photo by Kenji Thuloweit)

The screen shows what a person wearing a virtual reality headset is doing in this maintenance training program demonstrated by aircraft maintainers Dec. 20, 2018. U.S. Air Force photo by Kenji Thuloweit

Another example or the VR being used in training is in the Air Force’s Pilot Training Next program, “which aims to make aviator training more efficient and push undergraduates through the pipeline faster,” National Defense magazine reports

The Air Force uses VR headsets such as the HTC VIVE Pro to practice and improve their skills. 

In a traditional pilot training environment, students use paper documents or an iPad with their training documents on it, Lt. Col. Robert Knapp, operations officer at Air Force Education and Training Command Detachment 24, tells National Defense magazine.

“They go from that into an extremely expensive traditional simulator where they can do the full range of flight maneuvers,” he says. “The problem with those expensive sims is there’s only a handful of them and they’re constrained on the number of times a student can get into them.”

VR headsets give airmen much easier access to simulation technology. “We can fill in the gaps between reading something in a book or an iPad and doing a high fidelity simulator with some cheaper commercially available tools that are out there,” Knapp says.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Discover how the Army, the National Park Service and other agencies use AR and VR. 

How AR Can Enhance Flight Maintenance

Meanwhile, the Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command is developing competency-based VR and AR training for aircraft maintenance. 

“Virtual training hangars are being built for the classroom and flightline with 3D environments for every airframe in AETC inventory, with AR capabilities and comprehensive instructor tools,” according to Aerospace Manufacturing and Design magazine.

“This effort is tied to our priority to transform the way airmen learn through the aggressive and cost-effective modernization of education and training,” says Masoud Rasti, AETCs chief of force development strategy and technical adviser.

In a separate effort, the Air Force’s 7th Bomb Wing is testing the use of mixed reality glasses to make their jobs more efficient and safer. 

The unit is piloting AR glasses and software, according to Defense Systems. The publication reports:

The glasses replace the tablets or large manuals that crews typically carry with them. They can overlay instructions on the machines, show PDFs or images and allow for remote support from others who can tap into the glasses to see what the wearers see. 

The glasses use simultaneous localization and mapping, or SLAM tracking, which enables maintenance crew members to get access to “system and computer-aided design modeling and overlays, where step-by-step technical instructions and drawings project onto the glasses’ display,” Defense System reports. 

Users can take screenshots via the glasses and can also open and view documents via their voices while working on projects with their hands.

U.S. Air Force photo by John Ingle