Via AFWERX Vegas, Air Force to Prototypes ‘YouTube for Virtual Reality’ Distribution Systems

Two U.S. Air Force Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTAC) with the 7th Air Support Operations Squadron from Fort Bliss, Texas, call-in simulated air strikes during the Reaper Flag exercise on April 2, 2019, in Sedalia, Mo. Using tactical radios and ruggedized tablets, the Airmen are trained and equipped to deploy with land forces, in order to coordinate airspace and missions including Close Air Support (CAS). Photo by Airman Parker J. McCauley.

Two U.S. Air Force Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTAC) with the 7th Air Support Operations Squadron from Fort Bliss, Texas, call-in simulated air strikes during the Reaper Flag exercise on April 2, 2019, in Sedalia, Mo. Using tactical radios and ruggedized tablets, the Airmen are trained and equipped to deploy with land forces, in order to coordinate airspace and missions including Close Air Support (CAS). Photo by Airman Parker J. McCauley.

Coordinating airspace over a virtual battlefield, a U.S. Air Force tactical air controller trains on a virtual handheld radio set, which he views on a tablet identical to the one he would use in the field. Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, the air crew of an C-130J responds in real-time, using their own virtual radio. The resulting learning is realistic, interactive, and potentially more “hands-on” than what is currently typical in a training environment.

Thanks to an on-going boost coordinated via the AFWERX Vegas Innovation Hub, much of that vision of using Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality (AR/VR) technology may be ready for roll-out to the U.S. Air Force as early as 2020.

“By the end of the year, pilots at the 189th Air Wing in Little Rock, Ark., will be able to work on their virtual radio set, and talk to a Tactical Air Control trainee at Lackland, to mutually work on their communications and technical skills,” says Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Powell Crider. Crider is the technology lead on the 2019 AFWERX Challenge focused on Maintenance Operations and Training Augmented Reality (“MOTAR”).

U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Powell Crider demonstrates an Augmented Reality (AR) headset. Photo courtesy of AFWERX Vegas

U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Powell Crider demonstrates an Augmented Reality (AR) headset. Photo courtesy of AFWERX Vegas

“We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re using a lot of existing products—things like voice and game servers—stuff that you’d recognize from playing video games at home,” Crider says. “We’re just using them in a different way.”

The AFWERX Vegas Innovation Hub was started in 2017 and is funded by the U.S. Air Force to support outreach to the business and academic communities. The location is one of three AFWERX Innovation Hubs—the others are in Austin, Texas and the District of Columbia. Each serves as a nexus for generating and hosting activities—whether on-site, online, or on-base—focused on delivering design solutions to Air Force problems faster, more effectively, and more efficiently than in the past.

Like Crider, AFWERX Vegas is focused on finding “dual-purpose” and Commercial Off-the-Shelf (“COTS”) technologies, which can be rapidly repurposed and applied to the Air Force’s problems.

Key to the successful AR/VR application is the backbone infrastructure supporting such technologies. Crider, a full-time member of the Tennessee Air National Guard and an Air Force aerospace systems maintainer since 1991, suddenly found himself working at a new level in 2018, when his work first came to the attention of U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson during a “Spark Tank” hosted by AFWERX Vegas.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Christopher Welch, 19th Operations Support Squadron commander, looks out the window of a C-130J while flying over Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., Nov. 14, 2018. Using Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality (AR/VR) tools, aircrew could soon be able to train on cockpit radio set-up and procedures with real-world tactical air-control personnel “on the ground,” without having to take flight themselves. Photo by Airman 1st Class Kristine M. Gruwell

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Christopher Welch, 19th Operations Support Squadron commander, looks out the window of a C-130J while flying over Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., Nov. 14, 2018. Using Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality (AR/VR) tools, aircrew could soon be able to train on cockpit radio set-up and procedures with real-world tactical air-control personnel “on the ground,” without having to take flight themselves. Photo by Airman 1st Class Kristine M. Gruwell

Possible objectives of the 2019 AFWERX Challenge regarding MOTAR included, but were not limited to:

  • Heads-up displays for maintainers

  • Tools to synchronize multiple and possibly geographically remote maintainers and/or supervisors

  • Tools to decrease human error during training an/or maintenance

  • Tools to increase training speed and knowledge-sharing

  • Tools to speed maintenance task-completion accuracy

The crowd-sourced AFWERX challenge process encourages vendors and other experts to collaborate on-line, while also protecting participants’ respective Intellectual Property (IP) rights. Through the MOTAR challenge, Crider and other innovators realized their initial AR/VR design-problem was, in some ways, bigger than they’d first thought: Generating AR/VR content might be easier than sharing it.

AFWERX Challenge logo.png

To learn more about AFWERX Challenges, visit: www.AFWERXchallenge.com.

“What we realized through the AFWERX Challenge was that AR/VR has a lot of potential, but there was no way of distributing such content within the Air Force,” Crider says. “Actually making the training and the apps turned out to be the ‘easy’ part—how could we distribute it? Not only that, but how could we incorporate [user input of] training data, and things like maintenance sign-offs?”

George Moncrief is a civilian innovation consultant based at the AFWERX Vegas hub, and is helping shepherd the MOTAR challenge process.

“Essentially, we’re trying to create Netflix or YouTube for the Air Force’s AR/VR content,” he says. “It needs to be an easily accessible platform for publishing and hosting content. For comparison, to share AR/VR content today, people are literally loading up hard drives and flying them from base to base.”

“We also need discoverability,” Moncrief says. “Airmen need to be able to browse the content available, and find the things they need. And finally, access control: Administrators need to determine who can access what content. Especially executable files.”

Moncrief’s role includes helping vendors apply for funding sources, such as the SBA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, and identifying military partners via the Air Force’s Squadron Innovation Funds (SIF).

Earlier this year, a successful AFWERX Challenge identified 120 companies offering commercially available, off-the-shelf AR/VR innovations. In an intermediary “pitch” event, expert judges from the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and AFWERX selected 16 vendors for further competition. From these, three were awarded contracts and funding to develop prototypes.

“Each of the companies has its own speciality,” says Moncrief. “LittlStar focuses on 360-degree video. They’ve worked with the top media companies in the world, such as Disney, Discovery Channel, and BBC. Dynepic focuses on mobile app-deployment in a secure environment and their CEO is an Air Force ISR veteran. And Eon Reality has a self-service content-creation tool and distribution platform used heavily in manufacturing.”

Later this summer, the prototypes will be presented in a demonstration “fly-off” to be held at AFWERX Vegas hub. “At that event, they each have to offer the capabilities we asked for,” says Crider. “We’re going to pick two to develop further. At the end of the fiscal year, we should have a fully demonstrable product that is ready for roll-out to one or more units, a command, or even to the Air Force at-large. Maybe even Department-of-Defense-wide!”

As envisioned by U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson in 2017, AFWERX is intended to solve some of the toughest challenges that the Air Force faces in an “outside the fence” environment, through innovation and collaboration amongst our nation’s top subject-matter experts. The world is changing quickly—new technologies, new threats, and new opportunities.

To learn more about AFWERX, visit: www.afwerx.af.mil

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AFWERX taps into the power of creativity and empowers intentional innovation that unleashes emergent approaches for the warfighter through a community of intrapreneurs, industry, academia, and non-traditional contributors. AFWERX has the ability "to bring together our nation’s best and brightest to collaborate, innovate, fabricate, and present accelerated results to the United States Air Force to better serve our No. 1 customer: the warfighter and operators in the Air Force."