Airmen take advantage of virtual reality paint booths

  • Published
  • By Randy Martin
  • 12th Flying Training Wing

NAVAL AIR STATION PENSACOLA, Florida – Teaching Airmen the how-to of protecting parts and planes just got safer and more efficient at the 359th Training Squadron’s Detachment 1 here thanks to virtual reality.

Members of the detachment recently installed two 3D virtual reality paint trainers in their schoolhouse, which graduates about 1,200 Airmen annually in the aircraft structural maintenance, low observable aircraft structural maintenance and non-destructive inspection career fields.

“The technology gap between using the virtual reality system and the real thing is almost one in the same, to the point where I train students here and I have to spend less time in the hazardous waste environment,” said Tech. Sgt. Kurt Brown, aircraft structural maintenance instructor.

Maintainers require a respirator, hearing protection, eye protection and a chemical protection suit when they are inside an actual paint booth. That equipment isn’t necessary for the detachment’s VR training, which focuses on spray gun techniques.

Until October 2018, Brown and fellow instructors alternated training between a two-dimensional simulator and two real paint booths. They thought VR could improve a student’s proficiency with spray guns, while simultaneously preserving resources and delivering motivated Airmen.

“All the multimedia devices we use get the students more excited about the career field,” said Staff Sgt. Jason Noyes, low observable aircraft structural maintenance instructor. “Then once they see the results and the increase in efficiency, they go into the paint booth and they realize it’s the exact same thing,”

Each VR system allows students to see themselves perform a task in playback mode. Students learn by seeing where they utilized improper technique, wasted paint, or where coverage was lacking. Students also get opportunities to paint an assortment of virtual equipment and utilize chemicals that match authentic materiel in the field. Instructors can track performance and adapt training objectives to match real world scenarios.

Ultimately, students get more time to improve their techniques and the instructors said they have seen improved scores on tests as a result.

“I’m able to train them and have more one-on-one time. I can instantly clear the paint. You don’t have to wipe it or wait for it to cure before sanding and blasting the parts with all the hazardous waste and chemicals,” Brown said.

Each system costs about $32,000, which includes a computer, spray gun, HTC VR goggles, 65-inch television monitor, software and operator training with the system’s commercial vendor. This investment pays for itself within two years.

“Operating costs for our two paint booths is $35,000 annually,” said Capt. Patrick Britton, 359th TRS Detachment 1 commander. “When they go into the real paint booth, each student gets maybe 10 minutes to paint. Each class spends 87 total hours waiting for paint to dry, and with 61 courses set for fiscal year 2019, that’s 5,300 hours spent waiting. So this technology allows us to rededicate that training time to our instructors and students by maximizing their hands-on time with the paint gun.”

Plans are to survey graduates and their supervisors in the field in the spring of 2019. That feedback will determine potential changes and improvements to future VR training.

“I believe we are the premier unit within the DoD for using VR in structural maintenance,” Britton said. “The true benefit of the system is that students develop great techniques. This training ensures more qualified maintenance professionals to maintain the Air Force’s fleet, and ultimately enables us to project the global airpower required by our combatant commanders.”