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AETC partners with university to expand virtual reality trainer’s capabilities

By By Robert Goetz | 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs | Feb. 15, 2019


Air Education and Training Command is partnering with a South Dakota-based university known for its science and engineering curriculum to enhance the capabilities of the virtual reality trainers used in pilot training.


The educational partnership agreement between AETC and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology will allow students and faculty at the university to enhance a virtual reality trainer, or VRT, from the major command’s Pilot Training Next program in Austin.


“AETC wants a virtual reality trainer in the school’s VR lab with the idea that they will work on improving the trainer,” said Lt. Col. Cory Waldroup, 99th Flying Training Squadron chief of innovations. “The technology team will focus on gamification and its application to achieving desired learning objectives.”


Waldroup visited the university upon the arrival of the PTN VRT last month to meet with faculty and students and spend time in the school’s virtual reality lab. He is planning additional visits to familiarize the team with the basics of pilot training.


AETC has identified five desired learning objectives for the project, starting with gamification and a learning management system based on scalable difficulty, Waldroup said.


“This is listed first because it is probably the biggest potential win,” he said. “A training platform that has elements of game playing will increase user engagement. Gamification through point scoring, leaderboards and other competitive measures could reduce the steep learning curve of attaining aviation skills. That would be a game changer.”


An incorporated LMS could have countless benefits, including the ability of an instructor pilot to assign maneuvers to trainees, Waldroup said.


“In addition, a read-out of standard deviations by trainees would better prepare the next instructor pilot,” he said. “Years of usage by a pilot – potentially as far back as high school junior ROTC – could build a profile allowing IPs to more effectively instruct that trainee.”


Other objectives for the project are quick-pick scenarios with deep repetitions, improved crew/wingman dynamics through networked scenarios, higher resolution where the user is looking for increased realism and better tactile feedback through realistic input controls.


Quick-pick scenarios would give trainees the opportunity to sit down at a VRT and select a specific maneuver or scenario to focus on, Waldroup said.


“In the past, trainees would ‘chair-fly,’” he said. “This involved working through maneuvers and scenarios in their mind. They would sometimes enhance this experience by sitting in front of a poster of the cockpit or even by replacing the control stick with a plunger affixed to the floor. Virtual reality would make chair-flying real-time and much more beneficial.”


AETC’s partnership with the South Dakota university complements the command’s commitment to a paradigm shift in pilot education manifested in Pilot Training Next, the initiative that uses existing and emerging technologies to decrease the time and cost of pilot training without sacrificing the depth of learning.


Work on the VRT at the South Dakota university will be conducted in the virtual reality research lab, said Dr. Jeff McGough, SDSMT Computer Science and Engineering Department head and professor.


“Some of the VR lab work is done by undergraduates through undergraduate project teams,” he said. “For the SDSMT-Air Force collaboration, the research will be part of faculty and graduate student work.”


McGough said he sees the collaboration as a “fabulous opportunity” for the school.


Computer science and engineering is involved in research on improving engineering education through the use of virtual and augmented reality,” he said. “The donation of the flight simulator and connection with AETC educators will enhance and extend this research in novel and impactful new directions. Beyond the specific research goals, working together can help us better understand the Air Force’s needs, which we hope will establish future projects to develop new tools in the dynamic landscape of high-tech education.”