By Tracy Martin
The U.S. Department Defense budget for fiscal year 2015 was reduced by approximately $64 billion from previous years, and the trend continued in 2016. With all branches of the military feeling the financial squeeze, becoming more efficient has been a necessity. Budget cuts for training have been especially noteworthy, as reductions in investment in personnel training represent a historic reversal.
Traditionally, the U.S. military has prioritized equipping and developing the skill set of servicemen, and servicewomen. In fact, the principle of “equipping the man” is a central tenet of the nation’s Full Spectrum Warfare doctrine. This principle holds that the quality of a military force’s enlisted personnel and officers maximizes their ability to generate combat power.
Therefore, while acquiring advanced technology and hardware is key to modern-day missions, the armed forces also must ensure that adequate resources are dedicated to integral education and training. And one of the most significant and cutting-edge methodologies that can accomplish military training goals at reduced cost is the use of virtual reality, or VR.
Advanced Training for Today’s Aircraft
The new fifth generation fighters, such as Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning, are smarter, stealthier, and more lethal than their predecessors. So much so that these advanced models present an unexpected hurdle: The new jets are too powerful to unleash their full performance potential in standard exercises, such as the U.S. Air Force’s Exercise Red Flag advanced aerial combat training. (Approximately 115 aircraft from twenty-five defense departments and thousands of support personnel participate in the exercise held on the Nevada Test and Training Range at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.)
The U.S. Air Force’s solution is to use VR to train its pilots in every facet of fifth generation fighter jet technology. By performing the first part of their training in a simulated environment, pilots are able to try out new capabilities and weapons systems that may be difficult or not even possible to test in the real world. Indeed, in recent years, the Air Force has embraced VR, or “Live Virtual Constructive” (LVC), training for a number of formerly hands-on-only training applications.
According to Colonel Franz Plescha, Commander of the U.S. Air Force Agency for Modeling and Simulation, “I personally believe the differences between live and simulation will continue to blur. Live or simulation? What’s the difference? What we call simulation today will become so real, it may actually influence our enemies in the future. Just imagine how that could change combat in the future.”
Today’s overall VR market is expected to reach $5.2 billion, and is projected to increase to $162 billion in 4 years, a 181 percent increase in annual growth. Why the rapid increase? As VR software developers find more uses for VR in the corporate world and entertainment industry, the cost of VR related equipment, from headsets to development software, is dropping, making it affordable to an increasingly larger customer base.
In the context of the video gaming industry’s creation of sophisticated three-dimensional (3-D) games and recent developments in VR for other commercial purposes, it is not surprising that the technology is being used to provide economical and convenient training for combat missions. However, VR based training is also proving useful and cost effective for other types of training tasks within military organizations, in particular, aircraft maintenance, repair, and overhaul.
Aircraft Maintainer Training
A virtual environment can be used to train in maintenance of electrical, hydraulic power plant, and fuel systems on an aircraft. In addition, it can be used to simulate flightline preflight, post-flight, and through-flight inspections.
For example, an instructor using VR training can select an electrical system within a specific aircraft and create a virtual malfunctioning component and/or an open or shorted electrical wire. The student is presented with the result — as an electrical fault, warning light, or computer-monitored fault code — and can choose from several diagnostic paths, using the appropriate technical manual and a 3-D rendering of the aircraft’s wiring diagram to start troubleshooting.
Inside a virtual electrical panel, wiring and other components appear just as they would in a real aircraft. The student works the problem in real time by accessing various panels located on the aircraft. He or she has to “virtually” remove mounting screws to access the panels and then select parts for detailed inspection.
Once a cable is selected, the student can choose which end(s) of the cable to inspect, using a tool from a virtual toolbox. When the student selects a digital multimeter, it is displayed on the computer monitor. The student configures the multimeter to check for voltage, continuity, or resistance, and then virtually drags the meter’s electrical probes to the pin in the cable to be checked. The meter displays a value, and the students has to decide on the next steps in the diagnostic process.
Because VR training can serve as both a learning and interactive evaluation tool, these traditionally separate classroom functions can be more seamlessly integrated. For example, if the student selects the wrong function on the multimeter (resistance instead of voltage), the VR software can pop up text providing an explanation of why another meter function should be used and provide a link to information on the use of a digital multimeter. Once the student completes the additional instruction, he or she is brought back to the original decision point to restart the diagnostic process.
While this example is electrical in nature, the same scenario could be applied to aircraft hydraulics. For example, a student might start by connecting virtual pressure gauges to virtual hydraulic lines to analyze system pressure at various point within a hydraulic system.
The same training methodologies can be utilized in mastering a wide range of aircraft systems. These may include high-tech integrated avionics. For instance, the Rockwell Collins Virtual Reality Maintenance Training puts the user into the flight deck of a King Air aircraft. Assisted by a coach, the user is able to diagnose an aircraft maintenance problem and then go the avionics bay and virtually replace the defective component. Other promising applications for VR training include weapons packages and other technical features of the latest fixed-wing and rotorcraft models.
Using New Tools
Boeing Defense, Space & Security Company’s Virtual Maintenance Training (VMT) system is one example of VR being effectively applied to aircraft maintenance training. The VMT system is in use by the U.S. Navy and others for Boeing’s F-18E/F Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler, P-8A Poseidon, CH-47 Chinook, and AH-64 Apache aircraft. In addition to aircraft, the VMT System is being applied to training for ground vehicles, such as the High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV), Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, and construction equipment.
Boeing’s VMT leverages modern multimedia technology to provide students with realistic repair training, teaching technicians system identification and location, as well as proper operation and fault isolation procedures. The VMT offers:
* Content management of training materials, eliminating multiple separate training manuals.
* An immersive training environment, integrating gaming technology and simulation, that supports maintenance activities.
* Integration of Boeing’s Intelligent Tutoring System, providing immediate feedback and instruction from a virtual instructor.
* The ability to train on tasks within the total aircraft environment, using high-resolution photos and other graphics, 3-D models, video and system animations, and audio that simulates sounds during system operation.
* Versatility, as the software can run on a desktop computer, laptop, tablet, or in some cases on a Smartphone.
* Team training, where students in a maintenance team role play and interact with each other as they would working on a real job.
As Yoshi Tanaka, a Senior Manager at Boeing Virtual Maintenance Training, explains, “Detailed tasks and procedures referenced from OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) technical manuals can be conducted to give the student[s] a realistic aircraft experience, without having the real aircraft. Scalability and networking of these systems allow the student to learn individually or in a ‘real life’ team environment.”
There are additional benefits to integrating VR in the training process and reducing hands-on time required on an actual aircraft. This approach makes the most efficient use of the time that students do spend on the aircraft learning tasks and thus increases availability of aircraft and reduces downtime costs.
Virtual Reality as a Business
To fill the need for VR training in the aircraft industry Lockheed Martin developed what it calls “turn-key training.” The company partners with international customers to provide end-to-end training-as-a-service, as opposed to selling individual training platforms.
Tom Quelly, Director of Business Development at Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Training, explains, “Customers remain in control and [Lockheed] provides the technologies, training, business model approach, and financing to enable previously unattainable levels of system performance. These programs have saved from 15 to 20 percent over traditional training acquisitions.”
For example, Lockheed Martin’s Wings Course Program, developed for the Republic of Singapore’s Air Force has simulated 50,000 flying hours of training for more than 300 pilots since 2008. The company has a similar program for the United Kingdom and is the exploring the concept with Australia’s AIR 5428 pilot training system program.
These programs take a long-term view of the investment required to make them profitable. According to Tom Quelly, “They’re typically long-term contracts, so they’re very predictable as far as our business metrics going forward. They give us a very good opportunity to build and grow a stable workforce of training experts.”
Another aspect of Lockheed Martin’s VR business is the OEM’s Collaborative Human Immersive Laboratory (CHIL). CHIL enables collaboration between product design and manufacturing teams, before physically designing and producing hardware or even building facilities. This enables engineers and technicians to validate, test, and understand products and processes early in program development, when the cost, risk, and time associated with making modifications are lowest.
An Aftermarket Approach
Another company that is leading VR training technology is NGRAIN. Founded in 2000, NGRAIN 3-D graphics are used by companies, such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, as well as by the U.S. and Canadian governments. Designed to see and share knowledge, the company’s core 3-D technology is based on voxels, or 3-D pixels. Similar to a sandcastle made from individual grains of sand, NGRAN graphics represent data through billions of discrete points that come together to form 3-D physical objects. Unlike traditional computer graphics, this technology fully represents objects as they naturally exist in the real world, including surfaces and internal structures.
NGRAIN’s Constructor is a 3-D software development kit (SDK) that allows developers to create their own interactive 3-D apps and software. The company’s Production Suite has been used to create over 150 virtual task trainers that provide interactive electronic training manuals and other training solutions for the U.S. Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force, U.K. Ministry of Defense, and many aerospace companies.
In addition, military uses of Constructor include the development of 3-D software-based technologies not only for training purposes, but also for active support of design, assembly, and maintenance functions of aircraft. Nadia Ballard, NGRAIN’s Product Marketing Manager, states, “Designed with the enterprise-level clients in mind, NGRAIN’s Augmented Reality offers an effective way to provide on-the-job support, so staff can perform maintenance, repair, inspection, training, and other tasks and procedures quickly and accurately.” For example, Constructor SDK was used to develop a Virtual Damage Assessment and Repair Tracking system used by maintainers to record damage and repair information for the F-22 and F-35.
NGRAIN recently released its Augmented Reality and Mobile modules as downloadable apps available on the iTunes AppStore. These mobile player apps enable easy integration of 3-D interactive training into mobile environments. They can help extend virtual training into field operations where traditional classrooms are scarce. “With the increased use of tablets in the cockpit and in the field, NGRAIN’s products allow users at the point of interest to gather previously inaccessible information about the system around them,” says Ballard. She points out that this has the effect of
“improving decision-making, accuracy, records-keeping, safety, and efficiency.”
An Integral Model
In the near future, it is possible that virtual reality could provide the vast majority of training for aircraft maintainers, with almost no training required on actual aircraft. However, it is likely that aircraft maintenance training will evolve to be an ever more integral combination of VR and hands-on training. Each will be used where it accomplishes the task at hand with the most efficiency and for the lowest cost.
Image #1 -Lieutenant Commander Allison Terray tries a virtual reality headset at the Innovation Jam hosted aboard the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Molly A. Sonnier/Released)
Image #2 -Major Dave Edney tries on the enhanced loadmaster training module that uses augmented reality, during the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) in Orlando, Florida. Augmented reality allows trainees to see real and virtual reality as the visual display adds different scenarios to training. (U.S. Air Force photo by Technical Sergeant Larry A. Simmons)
Image #3 – Sergeant Major Steven Horsley, Commandant of the Joint Special Operations University Enlisted Academy, explores an Institute for Creative Technologies virtual reality environment during a recent visit to the institute. (Photo by Stephanie Kleinman)
Image #4 – High-fidelity mock-ups of the P-8’s wing, fuselage pylons, weapons bay, sonobuoy launch, and storage sections support VR training for loading, unloading, and various aircraft component removal and installation tasks. (Photo courtesy of Boeing Defense, Space & Security)
Image #5 – Boeing’s VMT includes various sections of the P-8 that support virtual removal and installation training tasks. Pictured is a section of the landing gear that interfaces with the VR software. (Photo courtesy of Boeing Defense, Space & Security)
Image #6 – Boeing’s Virtual Maintenance Trainer (VMT) supports more than 1,000 maintenance procedures that combine 3-D graphical front-end depictions of P-8 Poseidons with simulations of aircraft systems interacting with mission software. The simulation allows for focused training on component installation and removal, system operation, and fault isolation. (Photo courtesy of Boeing Defense, Space & Security)
Image #7 – With the NGRAIN Augmented Reality Player 3-D content can overlay real-world physical objects using an iPad camera for instant visual feedback for on-the-job support and training. (Photo credit NGRAIN)