Military Aircraft Maintainers May Train on Virtual Reality

Capt. Stephen Nagel tests out a virtual reality aircraft maintenance program Sept. 27, 2016, at Modern Day Marine. (Photo by Hope Hodge Seck/Military.com)Capt. Stephen Nagel tests out a virtual reality aircraft maintenance program Sept. 27, 2016, at Modern Day Marine. (Photo by Hope Hodge Seck/Military.com)

QUANTICO, Virginia — The military has been exploring the use of immersive virtual reality technology to train troops for combat for some time. But VR may prove useful as a way to provide cheap and convenient training for maintenance tasks as well.

Here at the annual Modern Day Marine Expo, executives with Boeing Defense are showing off a system that does just that. Using off-the-shelf motion sensors, an HTC Vive headset and controllers with a trigger and sensing pad, the program takes a service member step-by-step through an aircraft repair job, from diagnosing the problem to re-testing the part after the fix to make sure it works.

The system on display was still a prototype, with a Boeing engineer walking users through the maintenance steps via a headset. But the plan is to develop an automated guide so troops can train on key tasks with little oversight, wherever they are.

Gary Jacquin, an engineer with Boeing Defense, talks a user through a virtual reality maintenance scenario.

Gary Jacquin, an engineer with Boeing Defense, talks a user through a virtual reality maintenance scenario. Credit: Hope Hodge Seck

In the loaded scenario, a windshield washer pump needed to be replaced in a Navy P-8A Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft. Using the controllers, users could flip switches to test the pump, then perform the needed maintenance step-by-step in a 360-degree simulation of the aircraft.

“Certainly, you could do it with just about any aircraft, things that require troubleshooting,” Timothy Nolan, a software engineer for Boeing Defense Training Systems & Government Services, told Military.com.

There are some things the system won’t do well. It can’t simulate resistance for more strenuous maintenance tasks, and a user can’t feel around in some area out of view to find a part, the way a maintainer might in a hard-to-reach area. But in an era of high operational tempo, when senior maintainers might be deployed or otherwise unavailable to train more junior troops, Boeing engineers envision the system will allow troops to meet training goals and maintain proficiency wherever they are.

The system is designed to be lightweight and easily deployable. And Boeing engineer Gary Jacquin told Military.com troops can complete a virtual training session, then send a video of the session to a supervisor located anywhere in the world for approval or correction.

Development of the system is still in the early stages, but Nolan said the system has so far received a warm reception at demonstrations for Air Force and Marine Corps audiences.

“We’re excited about this technology,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of practice uses for it.”

About the Author

Hope Hodge Seck
Hope Hodge Seck is a reporter at Military.com. She can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.