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Virtual reality project introduces new training prospects

Two Airmen wearing occupational camouflage pattern uniform stand in front of a projector while using virtual reality gear

(From left) U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Ryan Stark, 344th Training Squadron special programs manager from Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, leads U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Krystopher Fletcher, 19th Maintenance Group aerospace propulsion instructor, through a virtual reality scenario of the inside of an aircraft May 2, 2019, at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas. Stark and other 344th members TRS visited Little Rock AFB to showcase Integrated Technology Platform, a campaign to use virtual reality to train students using software called Virtual Hangar. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Mercedes Taylor)

A closeup photo of someone wearing an Airman Battle Uniform holding a virtual reality controller

An Airman from the 19th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron communications navigation flight operates a virtual reality controller to complete a scenario May 2, 2019, at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas. Members from the 344th Training Squadron, Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, came to Little Rock AFB to showcase Integrated Technology Platform, initiative to train students with a virtual reality program called Virtual Hangar. Students can navigate Virtual Hangar using controllers and headsets. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Mercedes Taylor)

A man dressed in operational camouflage pattern speaks to a crowd of military service members in front of a large projected screen

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Justin Nissen, 344th Training Squadron instructor from Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, briefs during a virtual reality demonstration May 2, 2019, at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas. Nissen and other 344th TRS members visited Little Rock AFB to showcase the Integrated Technology Platform, an initiative to train Airmen using virtual reality. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Mercedes Taylor)

LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark. -- Virtual reality is an emerging technology in today’s modern world. Its development has paved the way for numerous advancements in entertainment, health care, and even military training.  Airmen have looked to using leading-edge technology to meet the challenge of being innovative to propel today’s Air Force.

The Career Enlisted Aviator Training Next flight at the 344th Training Squadron from Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, is the team behind the Integrated Technology Platform, an initiative to train Airmen with virtual reality software.

“It currently costs more to train students traditionally than in the virtual reality environment,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Ryan Stark, 344th TRS Career Enlisted Aviator flight special programs manager. “With this method, we could give Airmen true total knowledge of their craft at an extremely cost-efficient rate.”

To enter a simulation, schoolhouses would require Virtual Hangar software, headsets, controllers, sensors and a computer system. The goal of the software is to have realistic, life-size simulations of all U.S. Air Force airframes available through virtual reality simulation.

Instructors and students can enter detailed environments and learn about aircraft or scenarios that otherwise wouldn’t be available to them at the time. In addition to instructor-led simulations, students can also go through self-paced demonstrations.

“This is the next step in the evolution of training,” said U.S. Air National Guard Senior Master Sgt. Brad Rhodes, 154th TRS C-130H loadmaster instructor. “Instead of practicing in theory through diagrams, we can develop Airmen with more practical knowledge. It allows us to give our students quality training when resources are low.”
So far, simulations have been created for aircrew members in training to perform real-world procedures such as starting and shutting down engines and identifying and applying emergency procedures.

To achieve an accurate aircraft simulation, contractors creating the current in-development software would implement scans of each airframe. Then, a team of subject matter experts for an airframe would annotate the finer details, which would be added by the software developer.

“The back end is infinitely changeable, so we could update aircraft when we needed to,” Stark said. “Schoolhouses will be responsible for providing the hardware while the system is non-proprietary and can be available on-demand.”

Although ITP was initiated by the CEA Training Next team for aircrew students, there is great potential for ITP to benefit other career fields, such as maintenance.

“I definitely see it having a future here at Little Rock AFB,” said U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Melissa Pennington, 19th Maintenance Group training superintendent during a recent ITP demonstration visit to Little Rock AFB. “We would be able to train on tasks that we couldn’t do on an aircraft. With this program, we could perform more in-depth training analysis of aircraft components and teach in a safer and supportive environment, all in virtual reality.”

The project has been in development for approximately two years and is starting to gain traction service-wide. By pushing beyond the boundaries of physical reality with the ITP, Airmen have the potential to become more effective through the increased visual comprehension and retention with a projected decrease in training hours and fuel cost.

“We’re trying to change the way, Air Force-wide, we train and how we can do it better, smarter and more effective,” Stark said. “It’s going to be interesting to see where this program goes and where it takes us. This started out as a flight-level idea and became an Air Force-wide initiative to ultimately improve our work force as a whole.”
 
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