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Virtual, augmented reality may hold key to future Air Force training

Virtual and augmented reality demonstration

A demonstrator shows how augmented reality can be used to view floating dialogue boxes for individual parts of a mock missile during a demonstration Jan. 8, 2019, at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. Augmented reality is one way Airmen could use advanced technology to enhance their training in the field. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Daryl Knee)

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. (AFNS) -- A demonstration of how virtual reality and augmented reality (VR/AR) can benefit Air Force training processes took place Jan. 8.

The demonstration was geared toward Airmen within the aircraft armament systems and munition systems, and gave a glimpse of how VR/AR applications can aid in providing an enhanced experience to Airmen preparing aircraft for combat missions.

Aircraft armament systems Airmen are responsible for maintaining launch and release devices on aircraft. This means that when a pilot pulls the trigger, the devices successfully launch away from the aircraft toward the intended target. Munitions systems Airmen are responsible for the assembly and processing of non-nuclear munitions. They handle, store, transport, arm and disarm weapons systems to ensure the safety of all Airmen involved in preparing aircraft sorties.

These two groups of Airmen operate in a complex work environment where aircraft up-time is paramount. VR/AR technology may present a unique way for the Air Force to ensure every Airman can get the training they need, catered to the individual’s preferred method of education.

“It’s a way to build the readiness and experience level by leveraging advanced technologies,” said Chief Master Sgt. John Jordan, 2W1 aircraft armament career field functional manager, Headquarters Air Force A4/A4LW(?). “In the past, we received this level of experience because the weapon systems were in need of constant repair and maintenance. Now, our systems are more advanced, and it’s hard to practice difficult repairs.

“We can build our skillsets and proficiency faster,” he continued, “by not having an aircraft break to perform the training. We could break one virtually at any time, any place. VR/AR is a unique way to fully train while still maintaining our mission capable rate.”

In this demonstration, Air Force leadership experienced an immersive VR training scenario, donned a head-mounted display for AR application and used hand-held devices for an AR training scenario.

The immersive VR scenario allowed users to walk inside a hangar with a piece of munition positioned for maintenance. The user could look around the hangar, interact with the munition, pull up the technical order in a full-view mode or even watch a video of someone successfully installing that specific item on the munition. Essentially, the person could take apart and reassemble a bomb in the middle of the conference room.

“The younger Airmen have a natural draw to this type of technology,” said Master Sgt. Ron Levi, ACC A4WC munitions policy manager. “In a classroom setting, VR/AR could allow instant immersion into the field to help those Airmen understand the content better, faster.”

In Air Force technical schools, newly enlisted Airmen must attend classes and complete assessments to learn how to perform their duties, said Levi. If the Air Force fully implements VR/AR into its training processes, the students could have virtual hands-on experience much earlier in their careers, which could bridge the training-to-experience gap challenge that the Air Force now faces.

The in-garrison mission may be different from the deployed mission, said Jordan. That gap can become noticeable if an Airman who has a home-station duty on a certain airframe or munition deploys and must work with unfamiliar equipment or in a joint environment. VR/AR could be used as recurrent or just-in-time training to bolster the combat capabilities of those deploying Airman.

Demonstrations like these are made possible through AFWERX, an Air Force program designed to combat today’s challenges through innovation and collaboration among the nation’s top subject matter experts. It’s a way to increase combat capability and solve complex national security issues by partnering with academic institutions, science and technology communities, and private industries.

AFWERX sponsored a small business innovation research special topic, and Vectrona Innovative Systems and Technologies earned a grant to conduct a demonstration of VR/AR applications for weapons and munitions systems training. Vectrona then partnered with Ario to create the backend platform to house the application. The company is in phase 1 development, which is an analysis to assess technological and operational feasibility, and will report its progress and findings back to AFWERX in early February.
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