Is Augmented Reality the Next Frontier in Flight Training

Dan Robinson, the creator of Red 6 Aerospace (shown at right) argues that his company's invention can end USAF's dependence on traditional simulators and adversary air contracts. Red 6 Aerospace courtesy photo.

An Air Force-backed augmented-reality company plans to demonstrate airborne technology in November that it says could do away with Red Air training.

Red 6 Aerospace’s software simulates enemies that pilots can fight during live flights. Rather than hooking up users to a closed, indoor system, the simulation works outside and adjusts as the user moves, according to creator Dan Robinson. He argues the invention can stop the Air Force’s dependence on expensive, traditional simulators and adversary air contracts while freeing up its aggressor pilots for missions other than Red Air.

Whereas virtual reality creates an entirely new world around you, augmented reality adds images to your regular surroundings that aren’t there in real life—for instance, showing an aircraft against the actual sky instead of creating both the airplane and the sky.

“We can simulate any near-peer adversary, which we are absolutely unable to do right now,” said Robinson, a former United Kingdom Royal Air Force pilota and the first-ever F-22 exchange pilot. “My vision is taking this technology to a point where we should never have to physically put another Red Air adversary, i.e., a real aeroplane, in the sky to provide Red Air again.”

The Air Force is increasingly trying to integrate AR and VR into regimens from maintenance to training to mission planning to operations. It argues airmen learn quickly through digital methods that are more responsive and require fewer traditional resources like instructors and certain equipment.

Air Education and Training Command’s Pilot Training Next initiative is helping spearhead that effort, as is AFWERX, the Air Force’s organization that helps find and foster new technologies, largely from commercial industry. Red 6, which launched in January 2018, holds a Small Business Innovation Research contract with the Air Force and is partnering with Air Combat Command’s Training Support Squadron, the service said. The company also secured $2.4 million in its first round of seed funding earlier this year, according to the Los Angeles Business Journal.

Red 6 demonstrated its AR simulation on the ground in February for the Air Force Test Pilot School, Air Combat Command, Air Force Research Laboratory, AFWERX, AETC, and others, in an aircraft the company built, Robinson said. The event was successful, he said. A second demo is planned for next month.

Robinson said the company has already started vetting its AR in the air. The Air Force, Navy, and Royal Air Force, as well as aerospace companies and investors, are slated to attend the demo, he said.

He added he’s in discussions with ACC and AETC about transitioning to a military aircraft and hopes to add the software into a T-6. Integration with an Air Force platform could come as soon as next year. A minimum viable product, ready to work with any training platform, may be ready within the next two years, he said.

The test plane can fly 300 mph and pull 9 Gs so it can emulate a fighter jet’s maneuverability, Robinson added. It works with six helmet prototypes, two of which are already used in testing. But the AR software doesn’t depend on a particular platform and could work with any in the Air Force inventory, he said.

Red 6’s visor could be used with Air Force helmets and drop down to show AR imagery. Even with that display, Robinson argues AR makes flight training safer because it’s less likely a pilot will bump into another aircraft. He said the company and AETC are talking about using the technology in a future Pilot Training Next class.

“It’s anchored around four key modules and those modules are easily integrated into any frontline platform or training platform,” Robinson said. “It still allows pilots to physically go and experience flight. There’s a big difference between being in the simulator and, obviously, pulling Gs, being able to run out of fuel, … a real aeroplane is fundamentally different.”

He argues the system is applicable to any type of training, not only for fighter jets, and is upgradable as America’s adversaries evolve. Red 6 can’t estimate how much money its system could save the Air Force, but said that it’s an improvement over the thousands of dollars it costs to practice flying in an F-22.

“Formation flying, air-to-air refueling can be practiced, baby pilots going through their training syllabus, at massive cost savings to those training providers and massive efficiencies as well,” Robinson said. “Ideally, what we’d like to be able to do is instructors can sit on the ground, in virtual reality headsets, or little simulators, and can connect and go fly against the students who are flying up in aeroplanes.”

Lt. Col. Eric Frahm, AETC’s chief product officer who also works with AFWERX, told Air Force Magazine that while AETC has no current plans to integrate AR into training, “this is a technology area with tremendous potential to save training funds while increasing our airmen’s effectiveness.”

As the service looks toward AR and VR, the military acknowledges there’s more to learn about the software. In March, an Air Force Institute of Technology study focused on using AR for maintenance pointed out that the technology may need a wireless network connection, that the technology can mildly disorient users, and that simple tasks can become more difficult in the virtual world.

Although AR can be beneficial overall, the study said, the Air Force’s infrastructure security “may hinder full integration.”

The service needs to understand the technology’s expected benefits and implications outside of the limited uses that have already been studied, the report stated. Others in the Air Force expect that the service, driven by younger airmen rising through its ranks, will embrace AR as “digital natives.”

“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 service said in a January release.