How VR is Helping Train the U.S. Military
Futuristic training, the kind of immersive simulations seen in sci-fi TV shows, is no longer a fictional dream. It’s almost here.
With the Tech Training Transformation team’s creation of a virtual reality training system coordinated by artificial intelligence, Air Education and Training Command officials are transforming the Airmen development process. At the forefront of this development stand the cruxes of modern technology, high completion rates and an agile speed of learning.
In partnership with officials at Sheppard Air Force Base, the T3 team has re-engineered the foundational Crew Chief Fundamentals Course into a VR experience. In July and August of 2020, 29 students donned VR gear and took the program for a spin. They examined tools, maintained simulated aircraft and completed objectives, all within a 3D, on-the-job environment.
The results were impressive. On the end-of-course assessment, scores from students within the program were comparable to those of students using traditional methods. However, both students and instructors commented on the quality of T3’s program, emphasizing how Airmen-centric and approachable the program made the training, and how the personalized modalities built upon AETC’s world-class standards of quality. They also finished the course 46 percent faster, completing the 27-day course in just 12.5 days.
“It’s proven that T3’s program is an effective learning model,” said Senior Master Sgt. Toby Caldwell, 362nd Training Squadron assistant superintendent, who has been actively involved in overseeing T3’s training initiative at Sheppard AFB since the program’s beginning. “As we continue to meet the accelerate-change mission, we in the training environment are teaming up at the forefront of technological enhancements.”
In June 2021, T3 introduced an additional component: non-player characters. Students interact with AI Airmen by asking them questions and receiving instructions within the simulation. For example, a student maintaining an aircraft could have a conversation with an AI security forces Airman patrolling the flight line and learn about safety protocols or ask questions about the area.
This AI interaction will assist with the formation of multi-capable Airmen and agile combat employment, as students will have the ability to essentially swap places with AI characters. A maintainer can learn basic flight line security from an AI security forces Airman, or a security forces Airman could enter the program and familiarize themselves with aircraft maintenance from AI.
The AI system will also continuously measure the student’s ability to complete tasks and foundational competencies, and it will track performance throughout the Airman’s career, not just during technical training. This education-focused career model relies fully on competency-based learning and an Airmen-centric, mission-focused mindset that meets the students where they are.
The T3 team is developing and testing an app for courses that don’t require VR. In the future, Airmen will log in on their phone and begin consuming course information according to their preferred learning style. For example, visual learners can watch videos and audio learners can listen from anywhere, even while on a run. Along the way, the AI capability will personalize the program. For instance, it will provide suggestions like, “Hey, I’ve noticed you listened to the lesson three times but still haven’t scored well on the assessment. Why don’t you try watching this video or completing this exercise instead?”
“This training is all about you,” said Maj. Jesse Johnson, Det 23 and T3 commander. “We’re no longer making you fit our content, we’re changing our content to match your needs. Not only does this program give more resources to students, it also keeps up with a new generation of learners who perform best outside of a traditional classroom. It allows for continued learning and the formation of multi-capable Airmen who can cross-train and expand their skillset anytime, anywhere.”
According to Johnson, this program will bring Air Force training to the cutting edge of education around the globe. He and his colleagues credit this success to the strong network of partnerships across the Air Force.
“Our plan is to partner with Air Combat Command’s Agile Battle Labs and with AETC’s Force Development Team to develop the agile combat employment, multi-capable Airmen training philosophy,” said Col. Leonard Rose, AETC’s Analysis and Innovation director.
The T3 team views training instructors, or force generators, as a first line of partnership. The initiative aims to empower instructors by eliminating the need to lecture at length, allowing them to focus on facilitating and answering questions instead of fitting into the typical “teacher” mold.
This kind of student-centered instruction flips the traditional teaching method, where instructors stand at the center of the learning process distributing information to students, on its head. In a student-centric model, students have the power to explore and learn through discovery and practice while instructors act as mentors and coaches.
Learner-centric initiatives and an improved training infrastructure speed up the training pipeline by allowing Airmen to progress at the speed of learning. It’s creating more well-rounded Airmen who are better prepared for an era of great power competition, and developing a more resilient training enterprise that can continue to operate in disrupted environments.
“We’re excited to continue utilizing virtual and augmented reality to enhance our technical training courses here at Sheppard AFB,” said Chief Master Sgt. Jason C. Groth, 82nd Training Group superintendent. “I think this type of training capability could also eventually be used to help train our multi-capable Airmen in austere locations.”
Plans are in place for two fully operational courses to launch at Sheppard AFB in 2022 with additional courses to follow. The two initial courses will be Crew Chief Fundamentals (2AX01 Air Force specialty code) and Logistics Planning (2G0X1 Air Force specialty code). The order for updates to training courses is determined according to requirements necessary to grow multi-capable Airmen.
Source: U.S. Air Force and Department of Defense
Top photo: Air Force Staff Sgt. Renee Scherf, Detachment 23 curriculum engineer, MC-130H subject matter expert, dons virtual reality goggles. (Photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Keith James)