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How Augmented Reality is Reshaping the Way We Look at Pilot Training

Augmented reality pilot and maintenance training is taking the world of aviation to new heights and reshaping how we prepare pilots and maintenance technicians for the future of warfighting. Fuel prices and safety concerns are among the reasons why the Air Force is looking for new innovations to make training efforts more accessible and efficient. Virtual reality in aviation training might just be the answer.

Scott Barrow, Corporate Project Manager, and DRG SkillBridge Coordinator, agrees “The ability to use Virtual Reality (VR) to augment training in a dynamic field of work such as aviation is extremely valuable.”

The United States Air Force is seeing its lowest enlistment rates in the last twenty-five years. There is a shortage of 1,650 pilots and a looming requirement to double the number of training sorties by the year 2030 to keep up a high level of preparedness.

Virtual Reality: A Cost-Saving Solution to Pilot and Maintenance Training

Training combat aviators is a very costly business. On average, it costs $80,000 per flight and six flights to train each pilot to competency which brings the grand total close to half a million dollars per pilot. This is just for one airframe.

With 12,000 pilots serving in the active-duty Air Force and around 1,470 new pilots entering training every year, the need for more cost-effective training while maintaining a world-class training program is a huge goal for the Air Force. Augmented reality pilot training has the potential to save the U.S. Government $160,000 per pilot by reducing the number of live flights from six to four.

Barrow sees the cost-saving potential for the military as well saying, “The cost to provide VR to aid pilot and maintenance training is significantly less than that of a multi-million-dollar simulator. This reduction in price allows for more training to accrue because more VR devices can be purchased and used at once. Also, these VR devices can be used in various locations, unlike a simulator that is in one fixed location. So, training can occur anywhere, for example, ships in the middle of the ocean or a Forward Operating Base (FOB) in a foreign country.”

Augmented reality pilot and maintenance training offer many features like photo, audio, and video notes linked to specific scenarios, tasks, and hardware. With a simple hand motion, a pilot or maintainer can access a full database of documents, windows, and 3D models. Augmented reality can help with maintenance for logbooks, records, manuals, step-by-step processing, and warnings for dangerous scenarios, or situations during maintenance that can lead to larger repairs being required.

Some of the riskier situations in flying like take-offs and landings can be made easier for learners using VR pilot training by visual overlays of the ideal path over the pilot’s live view to help guide students as they practice so they can more efficiently learn the correct movements and mechanics of these tasks. Tricky aerial formations and refueling scenarios can be practiced in augmented reality to better familiarize pilots with these in-air tasks.

VR pilot training aids in visualizing navigation systems, communication with air-traffic control, changes in weather, rough terrains, flight plan alterations, waypoint information, artificial horizons, and varying time of day to allow pilots to train across unlimited combinations of factors. Augmented reality has the potential to save lives by enabling pilots, crew, and other staff members to avoid making mistakes.

Barrow added, “VR also provides a hands-on familiarity with new complex material that can be difficult to learn. VR has been shown to increase the retention rate of pilots and technicians in training and reduce training times. This is because VR allows the user to see, feel, and manipulate what they are learning thus promoting faster learning. VR can create a situation that might not occur often and place the user in that situation helping him/her be better prepared (i.e.) emergency conditions, complex maintenance procedures, or even completing checklist/procedures to learn processes.”

More than 80% of students who have experienced VR training report that it helped them to be more confident and prepared for live-flight events. With 70% of VR students relaying that they were able to learn concepts better and overcome tricky flight challenges, augmented reality pilot training appeals largely to current military and civilian aviators. However, this wave of new training is not without its challenges and drawbacks.

Considerations for the Future of VR in Pilot Training

Technical challenges pose the greatest potential to make augmented pilot training a bit further on the horizon than most would like to think. Optimization of VR engines are all unique and there must be a greater focus rather than just the graphics, and sound effects that engage the learner.

Global optimization is what will ultimately make this transition a success. Each component created for the VR must be scrutinized for its importance in training and that they focus on procedural steps rather than passive action. Instructors are needed to monitor the responses of the pilot in training and the VR software to make sure that the training experiences are tailored to the individual student’s needs.

The human factor of students’ physiologically can also be a challenge because augmented reality often changes the visuals seen but not necessarily the motions of their surroundings changing in response to actions taken in the VR simulation.

Onboarding is a process that is a real investment of time because not only is the student using the actual physical controls of an airframe, but they are also having to manipulate the virtual reality components. Once onboarding is completed then the training gains greater fidelity for the student. A transition period is necessary for the successful implementation of this type of technology and must be factored into already tight training schedules.

Barrow concluded, “VR is a vital tool that should be incorporated into dynamic learning environments because it is an effective, efficient, customizable tool that helps service members and their trainers better prepare their students to be more confident in applying what they have learned.”


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