LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark. --
Training is an essential component to Airmen in all stages of their career. From brand new pipeline students to seasoned veterans, Airmen never stop learning and gaining experience to advance the Air Force. At the 189th Airlift Wing, the 189th Operations Group hosts C-130H instructor aircrew who are responsible for training the Air Force’s entire C-130H aircrew community, and those of allied nations. Along with compulsory continuation training, aircrew members have specific classified training that must be accomplished before they can be certified in their career field.
The effort to develop virtual reality (VR) training environments has taken the DoD by storm, spawning VR stations for Airmen, Guardians and Guardsmen for several years. Real-world training is associated with costs in time, manpower, and dollars. The additional physical risks of training on classified material or in a classified environment are naturally higher for younger Airmen who are not familiar with processes or programs. To answer this challenge, the 189 AW Innovation Team has been working over the last two years on the Fully Immersive Threat Reaction Environment (FITRE) system, requesting funds and pitching the system to leadership throughout the Air National Guard and other Department of Defense components. With crucial support from ARCWERX and others, FITRE will finally become a reality.
“There have been many enormous and expensive projects throughout DoD that have involved these collaborative virtual reality environments, and there are a lot of methods to go about producing them,” said Lt. Col. Justin Fitzpatrick, the 189 AW Innovation officer. “We decided from inception to avoid any overhead bureaucracy and aggressively streamlined our development and acquisition processes. Our rule is ‘action first, Powerpoint later.’ As a result, we will actually have this new and versatile simulation ready to use in record time. Soon any DoD aircrew can train in a highly advanced, classified threat environment 24/7 and right now classified VR environments are few and far between. We literally asked everyone we knew for money, made a lot of phone calls, and talked to people hoping they’d invest. In the end, we built a phenomenal team of diverse investors and developers.”
Funding the majority of the program outside of mainstream channels, the Wing’s Innovation team collected enough piecemeal funding to keep development efforts moving over two years. The 189th Airlift Wing, seeing the potential payoff, seeded the project with $400k in Squadron Innovation Funding (SIF). Next, their pitch made it to the C-130H Weapons System Council, who came together in 2020 to contribute an additional $250k in their own SIF. AFWERX and Defense Intelligence Agency also donated funds toward the project over the next year. With a partial model to demonstrate, they secured top-off funding and an AETC partnership during Lt. Gen. Brad Webb’s, Air Education and Training Command Commander, visit to Little Rock in September. By sharing the vision and cost among the joint community, more than $1.6M was contributed to make the prototype effort a reality.
Along with funding, contributions included subject-matter experts sharing their knowledge to ensure accuracy, readiness, and usability. Master Sgt. Christopher Lipscomb a 189th Operations Support Squadron Intelligence Analyst and Maj. Dan “MOTO” Maslowski, a 189 OSS Weapons Officer, proved invaluable throughout the project. The development team consists of heavy-hitting expertise from Georgia Technical Research Institute and Defense Intelligence Agency, providing content – classified and unclassified – to make the training as detailed and accurate as possible and populate the virtual world.
“This style of lean acquisition sheds new technologies even during development – our team built a bonus tool called TerraStream to support FITRE. It will hyper-accurately render any geographic area in the world into virtual reality within 2-3 weeks,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s unclassified, very affordable, and DoD owns the content. Any VR user can say ‘hey, we want a map of so-and-so’ and we can have it available to them very quickly without a contract. You can use any imagery or add-ons you want. DoD now has that capability.”
Fitzpatrick believes that the Air Force is right on an invisible threshold of realizing something bigger and better through the virtual reality medium. He expressed that instead of valuing the fact that objects can be accurately rendered, the underlying engine and data collection of that program is where the value lies.
“All VR looks the same to an outside observer watching someone use it. Because you’re not in it.” he said. “But what’s underlies the game is where the potential is. This product represents a new domain because of the kind of information we’re giving the aircrew. We took these really expensive, high-level analysis tools and wrapped them in VR, which opens these crazy new possibilities for other existing frameworks. The most common response we heard when pitching this was ‘that’s never been done before’ but now there’s this growing feeling of excitement to see it work for the first time. There are no tools like FITRE in the VR space and at the same time, this product is more jointly accessible, scalable, and affordable than even run-of-the-mill systems. We’re watching these disparate and powerful technologies start to converge with innovative processes and I know we’re about to cross a threshold. FITRE is your first demonstration of what that looks like.”
The FITRE Beta is scheduled to release by October of 2022. Those who are interested in integrating this capability can reach out to Lt. Col Fitzpatrick for more information.