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Innovation Hub: Travis AFB partners with VR company to enhance training

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. James Hodgman
  • 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Scanning the interior and exterior of the largest aircraft in the U.S. Air Force is no small feat.

A team from Sketchbox Inc. an augmented and virtual reality prototyping company based in San Francisco, took six hours Sept. 6 to obtain multiple 3D scans of the C-5M Super Galaxy at Travis AFB. The data will be used to create virtual reality scenarios to enhance training for mobility Airmen.

“We scanned the entire C-5 using a laser scanner,” said Joe Connolly, Sketchbox Inc head of product. “We will take the scanned data, which is a collection of points in 3D called a point cloud, and merge it with other high-resolution images we collected. After the merge, the point cloud data combined with the image data, will enable us to create a 3D model of the C-5 that can be rendered in virtual reality.”

“Once we have the model of the C-5 we will be able to use our VR design tools to make the model interactive and provide Airmen with experiences as if they’re actually inside the C-5, such as opening doors or flipping switches,” Connolly said. “Over the next 11 months, we’ll work closely with the 60th Air Mobility Wing and the Travis Phoenix Spark Cell to build VR training simulations for the C-5.”

The idea of using VR to train C-5 crew members came from Airmen assigned to the 22nd Airlift Squadron at Travis AFB, said Capt. Joey Hinojosa, 22nd AS chief of C-5M wing aircrew training. He shared the concept with Travis’ Phoenix Spark Cell in April.

“We only have so much resources, money and manning,” Hinojosa said. “We have to effectively do everything we can to train our Airmen so they can adapt to the mission and the constant changes that global mobility requires.”

One of those requirements is the possible deployment of emergency slides that allow people to exit the C-5 quickly and safely. When Hinojosa introduced the VR training idea, he said he did so with the emergency slide deployment in mind.

Most loadmasters haven’t actually deployed the emergency slide before and the training video currently used to show how to do that was produced in the 1980s, he said.  

“Right now, the first time one of our Airmen have to deploy one of the slides could be during an actual emergency,” he said. “We need to take advantage of innovative technology such as 3D models and virtual reality, so we can not only enhance training, but possibly save lives.”

During the scanning of the C-5, the Sketchbox team recorded the deployment of one of the slides.

“Today, we are here to obtain all the data we need to create a virtual reality trainer to deploy slides and in the future, we could use Sketchbox technology to create training aids for the loadmaster training program so our Airmen can see what it’s like to load cargo onto an airplane in a VR environment and practice that before they have to perform those tasks for a mission,” Hinojosa said.

The Travis Phoenix Spark Cell sent a written request to AFWERX in May seeking approval to move forward with 3D scanning and VR training. The innovation hub received approval from AFWERX Aug. 22.

“Through Phoenix Spark, the 22nd AS submitted a proposal to work with Sketchbox under the Small Business Innovation Research program championed by AFWERX,” said Maj. Kristofer Fernandez, 60th AMW Phoenix Spark Cell chief. “The Air Force Research Laboratory and AFWERX approved the proposal and prototyping has been ongoing over the past month.”

The major said there are no bounds to the benefits VR training can provide.

“The increasing democratization of virtual reality will certainly lead to enhanced training for Airmen across all Air Force specialties as we transform knowledge typically gained from technical orders to VR,” he said.

“The possibilities are endless,” Hinojosa added. “We could apply this technology to enhance training of our flight engineers, pilots, crew chiefs, all of our Airmen. The KC-10 Extender community is working with Sketcbox right now to develop an aerial refueling trainer from the pilot’s perspective. This will allow pilots to familiarize themselves with the refueling process before an aircraft is 10 feet away from them somewhere high above Earth.”

The team at Sketchbox is thrilled to be in a position to help, Connolly added.

“Better training leads to more resilient, confident and knowledgeable Airmen, which leads to a more efficient force,” he said. “We are excited to be a part of that.”