SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas — Maj. Gen. Timothy Leahy, 2nd Air Force commander, often shares the story of when he had to rewire a clothes dryer when the industry switched from a three-pronged plug to four prongs.
He went to a big-box home improvement store to see if there was some sort of adapter he could use to make his dryer functional, but the associate told him he would have to rewire the appliance. The associate said there was no readily available instructions on how perform the daunting task, so he did what any other do-it-yourselfer would do — he turned to YouTube, watched a couple videos and completed the task in 10 minutes.
“What if we do that for maintenance? What if now I’m a young maintainer and I’m walking out to change out a hydraulic pump and I either haven’t done it or I’ve seen it done once. That could be a daunting task,” said Leahy, who hosted the 2nd AF Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality Summit at Sheppard Air Force Base Jan. 17-18. “Which step first? Do I remove this line? Do I cap this line?
“But if I have augmented reality that I could hit ‘play,’ watch exactly how to do it, then hit ‘step by step’ and it walks me through it step by step, pointing to the piece in a monocle in my eye, I could execute that maintenance action flawlessly because I’m supported by all the right tech data visually in front of me as I’m looking at the part on the jet. The YouTube way of doing business.”
Three Sheppard assets — the 82nd Training Wing Public Affairs Digital Design Lab, the 82nd TRW Training Operations Instructional Technology Unit and the 367th Training Support Squadron ITU from Hill AFB, Utah — and a few industry leaders gathered at the North Texas installation to exchange ideas about how to use augmented and virtual reality technology in technical training.
Why Sheppard? Leahy said part of the reason is he has seen firsthand the work being done in the world of VR at Sheppard during a visit to the base in late-October. He said other bases in 2nd AF are also dabbling in VR, but the 82nd TRW is working on products that could take aircraft maintenance training to the next level.
Secondly, he said the base was chosen as the site of the symposium because of the recent surge in 3-level aircraft maintainers, going from a shortage of about 4,000 to now only about 400 in a short matter of time.
"We’ve made that number up through hard work, but what does that tell you? That we’ve put an awful lot of 3 levels into the maintenance pipeline, but we still have a shortage of 5 and 7 levels,” he said. “So, I think VR and augmented reality, more specifically, has the ability to allow us to take a 3 level and make them as capable as a 5 level or 7 level by giving them that augmented reality that helps them see a problem, see the solution, have a visualization of exactly how to get after changing out a hydraulic pump, changing out a wheel — whatever maintenance action is required.
The general continued, “My vision, and this is ‘a’ vision not ‘the’ vision, is now maybe a single 7 level can be monitoring through the virtual reality mechanism five or six or 10 or 20 — whatever the right number is — 3 levels and be able to help supervise as opposed to now where we might have 3 levels available to do maintenance, but because we don’t have the 5 and 7 levels, they’re not capable of doing the maintenance.”
James Rumfelt, an illustrator in the Digital Design Lab, said it’s exciting to see the Air Force realize the potential the “gamification” of virtual training tools can change how Sheppard and other technical training installations today’s technologically advanced Airmen.
“The best thing about what we're doing here is that these young men and women have never lived in a world without video games,” he said. “There is no additional training required to use the trainer. They jump into the virtual worlds we build and know exactly how to get around and interact.
“The technology has finally caught up with our imaginations. I really look for a large part of our training to be done this way from now on.”
Lynn List, 82nd TRW Training Operations director, said Sheppard has been providing interactive multimedia products for a few decades to be used in a classroom setting, but it isn’t in a virtual environment that lends to next-level training. Creating a virtual setting, she said, will enable technical training students more opportunities to learn and hone their craft in a more efficient and effective way.
“We are taking our existing training, we’re taking pieces of that training, specific objectives that we think lend itself well to the VR/AR environment and we’re going to convert those objectives because it saves time. It allows the student to continue to practice something in a low-cost, safe, controlled environment without expending resources; without damaging equipment; without hurting themselves in this safe environment,” she said. “So, we’re moving toward that slowly, but after today’s symposium, I think we’re going to move there much more quickly.”
Although a host of experts are at Sheppard already, from programmers to graphics and curriculum, it’s not something that is going to happen overnight. She said they will need more training on some aspects of virtual environments, more software and, simply, more experience.
List said the Air Force can employ the technology for other uses than technical training, such as developing a virtual trainer for Airmen pre-deployment training to one that teaches Airmen how to drive.