Despite the Air Force’s full-court press in recent years to close its persistent and troubling pilot shortfall, the gaps in crucial categories remain — and in some cases, have worsened.
A new technology, which combines live training with virtual simulation, can help address that problem, its proponents say.
Red 6, a tech start-up offering augmented and virtual reality solutions as a way to allow pilots to train live against virtual adversaries.
“It’s the best of both worlds,” Dan Robinson, a retired Royal Air Force pilot said. Pilots can train in real flight—flying with a special helmet and heads-up display that allows them to see their virtual enemies. The enemies, being online creations, can be modeled to mimic the capabilities and profile of any adversary weapons platform—and can be powered by artificial intelligence. “You can create the adversary, define his capabilities, and train against weapons systems that would be too expensive for live training, such as hypersonic missiles,” Robinson said.
But the technology is challenging, he explained. Virtual reality creates an entirely synthetic environment, which is a relatively straightforward challenge. “In augmented reality we are introducing virtual entities, virtual objects into the real world, and making them interact dynamically with us, with our surroundings, as if they were really there and that’s a much more complex set of technical problems to solve.”
The key breakthrough technologies that enable Red 6’s Airborne Tactical Augmented Reality System (ATARS), Robinson said, were in vision tracking—ascertaining where the pilot is looking and shifting the perspective of the virtual objects accordingly—and in the display. “Most VR doesn’t work outside … The environment is too dynamic and the display isn’t visible enough. It’s like trying to look at your cellphone screen in bright sunlight.” VR technology is generally limited to a 60-degree field of vision, about a third of the 180-degree field of vision humans have in the real world. “We are at about 120 degrees right now, and we are working on expanding that,” Robinson said.
AR is a transformational technology, with applications way beyond pilot training, Roper said. “This will disrupt not just Air Force training, but all-domain training … Augmented reality provides a paradigm-shifting opportunity for the military to train at much lower costs and against threats and in environments that cannot be recreated in the real world,” added Roper, who was appointed last month to the Red 6 Advisory Board. “AR technology has major commercial applications as well.”
Red 6 has completed a SBIR II contract from AFWERX and is expecting a SBIR III soon. The Red 6 team is working to integrate its ATARS technology into a T-38 training aircraft at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.
“That is the next step for us,” Robinson said, “to demonstrate how this will work in an Air Force trainer jet.”