From Dreams to Virtual Realities > Air Force Materiel Command > Article Display

Virtual reality is known for its entertainment purposes, but what if it could be used to develop Air Force personnel through on-the-job learning? This idea was showcased at the 2023 Air Force Materiel Command Spark Tank event, which provided Airmen and Guardians an opportunity to come up with innovative solutions to operational problems.

Staff Sgt. Jeremy Neilson, executive officer of the 412th Test Wing, command chief at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., is one of two winning innovators selected to advance to the Air Force level of the Spark competition Tank.

Neilson is leading the development of a virtual workout program. It will combine virtual reality and virtual augmented reality to enrich training in the aeronautical maintenance sector.

Neilson’s first specialty in the Air Force was security forces. During his time, he was tasked with ensuring the security of all base weapons, property and personnel from hostile forces. He was deployed to Afghanistan as a fire team leader, where life as he knew it was about to change. Neilson received a call reporting a riot in progress and was called in to help with crowd control. Due to the traumatic events he experienced, as well as carrying heavy equipment, Nielson crashed three discs into his back, sustaining permanent damage.

“After that, I had to strategically refocus my work,” Neilson said. “Continuing to carry this heavy equipment could lead to me becoming paralyzed. I decided to train myself in training management.

Training management allowed Neilson to go from department to department and ensure that the training methods provided produced quality staff.

One of the assignments he received was to assess aircraft maintenance, where he quickly developed an understanding of the professional field and their mission of being responsible for the condition of the Air Force flying fleet and the safety of his flying team.

“I fell in love with the interview,” Neilson said. “When I was able to see the ins and outs of the job and how they have to train, it gave me a better appreciation of what they do, due to the complexity of their work.”

Neilson’s experience in the security forces has accustomed him to a hands-on training approach. However, he noticed that aircraft maintenance did not use these training methods.

With his role as training manager and a new appreciation for aircraft maintenance, Neilson asked a simple question that sparked innovation. “How could it be improved?”

“[The Air Force makes] powerful weapons are flying so airmen don’t have to get shot,” Neilson said. “They ensure that large cargo planes can carry survivable operators downstream. They can inherently protect the people I care about. I just felt that they [aircraft maintainers] deserved something more than current training methods.

This motivated Neilson to create a training tool to illustrate the importance of their training while creating a sense of urgency.

Neilson has set up a plan to get virtual augmented reality for the trainees, which will include backpacks and headset technology. It will place trainees in a virtual environment dealing with real-world issues.

“Virtual augmented reality uses technology to improve the way you get information,” Neilson said. “Imagine if the goggles that aircraft maintainers wear were smart enough to know that an airman is struggling during training or on the job, and then references appear in the lens.”

Virtual reality only gives the participants the simulation, but it is the augmentation that will give the trainees the learning capabilities.

“When a jet plane catches fire, you’re not just going to go with the flow and stay calm,” Nielson said. “We want to enhance training with virtual reality so it can add realism fidelities.”

Neilson and his team spent a lot of time on their project. They have developed their own program for the virtual workout regimen.

First, the team will determine common maintenance issues that each aircraft type might encounter. Then decisions will be made to implement situations virtually or keep the original training form. After that, Neilson and his team will identify a vendor to help develop the training objectives and ensure the systems are ready for use. Finally, aircraft maintainers will be subjected to virtual reality sessions that demonstrate augmented reality in use using the provided headset.

Another objective of virtual training is to decrease the loss of knowledge. Research by Neilson and his team has determined that the development of virtual technology will help with continuity.

“I think it’s profound that a virtual maintenance training system can increase fidelity, which we’ve demonstrated, and improve skill by performing tasks repeatedly,” Neilson said. “We have aircraft maintainers who have been thriving in their role for 20 years. Once they remove it, it leaves us in an interesting position as we train new maintainers. Creating a digital continuity will allow us to record and reproduce 20 years of experience.

Neilson looks forward to the next round of Spark Tank where he will showcase his innovation nationally in hopes of officially implementing the training method.

“I learned that innovation is a strategic imperative,” said Neilson. “It won’t be who makes the best weapon system, or which missiles launch faster or have more impact. It will be our ability to cognitively outsmart our close competitors. Spark Tank is one way to do that. . “

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