AFMC Command News

Dreams to virtual realities

  • Published
  • By Zion Dillahunt
  • Air Force Materiel Command

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

Master Sgt. Jeremy Neilson, Senior Executive Officer to the 412th Test Wing Command Chief at Edwards Air Force Base, California, is one of two winning innovators selected to advance to the Air Force-level of the Spark Tank competition.

Neilson is leading development of a virtual training regimen. It will combine virtual reality and virtual augmented reality to enhance training in the aircraft maintenance sector.

Neilson’s first Air Force specialty was security forces. During his time, he was tasked to ensure the safety of all base weapons, property and personnel from hostile forces. He was deployed in Afghanistan as a fire team lead, where life as he knew it would shift. Neilson received a call that reported a riot taking place and was asked to assist with crowd control. Due to the traumatic events he experienced, along with carrying heavy gear, Nielson crushed three discs in his back, suffering permanent damage.

“After that I had to strategically realign my job,” said Neilson. “Continuing to wear this heavy gear would potentially lead me to becoming paralyzed. I decided to cross-train into training management.”

Training management allowed Neilson to go from department-to-department and make sure the training methods provided were producing quality personnel.

One assignment he received was to evaluate aircraft maintenance, where he quickly developed an understanding of the career field and their mission to be responsible for the condition of the Air Force’s flying fleet and for the safety of its flying team.

“I fell in love with maintenance,” said Neilson. “When I got to see the ins and out of the job and how they must train, it allowed me to grow an appreciation for what they do, because of the complexity of their job.”

Neilson’s background in security forces accustomed him to a hands-on training approach. However, he noticed aircraft maintenance did not utilize those training methods.

With his role as a training manager and a newfound appreciation for aircraft maintenance, Neilson asked one simple question that ultimately led to an innovative new idea. He asked, “How can this be improved?”

“[The Air Force makes] powerful weaponry fly so Airmen don’t have to be shot at,” said Neilson. “They ensure that large cargo planes can transport operators that can survive downrange. They can inherently protect the people I care about. I just felt they [aircraft maintainers] deserved something more than the current training methods.”

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

Neilson configured a plan to get virtual augmented reality for trainees, which will include backpacks and headset technology. It will place trainees in a virtual setting handling real-world problems.

“Virtual augmented reality is using technology to enhance how you get information,” said Neilson. “Imagine if the glasses aircraft maintainers wear were smart enough to know that an Airman is struggling during training or on the job, and then have references pop up in the lens.”

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

“When a jet catches on fire, you’re not just going to go through the motions and be calm,” said Nielson. “We want to improve training with virtual reality so that it can add fidelities of realism.”

Neilson and his team have devoted a lot of time to their project. They developed their own agenda for the virtual training regimen.

First, the team will determine common maintenance problems each type of aircraft might encounter. Then, decisions will be made to either implement situations virtually or keep the original training form. After that, Neilson and his team will identify a vendor to assist with developing training objectives and to make sure the systems are prepared for use. Last, aircraft maintainers will be put through virtual reality sessions that exemplify the augmented reality being utilized using the headgear provided.

Another goal of the virtual training is to decrease the knowledge drop-off. Research done by Neilson and his team have determined that development of virtual technology will help with continuity.

“I think it is profound that a virtual maintenance training system can increase fidelity, which we have shown, and enhance proficiency by doing tasks repeatedly,” said Neilson. “We have aircraft maintainers that thrive in their role for 20 years. Once they retire it, leaves us in an interesting spot as we train new maintainers. Creating digital continuity will allow us to record and replicate 20 years’ worth of experience.”

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

“I’ve learned that innovation is a strategic imperative,” said Neilson. "It’s not going to be who makes the best weapon system, or the missiles that launch faster or have more impact.  It’s going to be our ability to cognitively outmaneuver our near peer competitors. Spark Tank is one way to achieve this.”