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Defense industry turns to AR for training, manufacturing, and more

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October 18, 2022

Dan Taylor

TechnologyEditor

Military Embedded Systems

U.S. Navy picture.

Augmented reality (AR) is not exactly new technology – the first functional AR systems stretch back to the early 1990s – but the situation in the defense industry has changed dramatically in recent years. Once more of a novelty than practical technology, now military contractors use AR for everything from training to manufacturing to battlefield operations, and that trend is likely to increase.

The military-electronics industry expects that growing computing power and data processing capabilities will continue to fuel the growth of augmented reality (AR) in defense. Industry insiders say that despite the fact that contractors have already found a wide range of uses for AR, they may have only scratched the surface of what this technology can do.

AR for training

Augmented training has seen wide implementation in the world of training thanks to its versatility and cost-saving potential.

Mike Blackford, director of business development for simulation solutions and services for Raytheon subsidiary Collins Aerospace (Charlotte, North Carolina), says that the company is currently working on AR technologies in the areas of maintenance training and small-footprint mobile task trainers to support the full-flight and mission simulators used by the US Air Force. AR augmentations to the trainers include heads-up displays (HUD) and avionics familiarization trainers, he says. (Figure 1.)

[Figure 1 | An example of a Collins Aerospace VR-based Mission Trainer housed in the back end of an aircraft. Photo courtesy Collins Aerospace.]

The benefits of AR technology for these purposes include a smaller footprint and a lower cost, which results in easier access for point-of-need training and more access for more students, Blackford states.

“For example, difficult events within the full-flight and higher-end mission trainers can be rehearsed prior to the student entering the higher fidelity trainers, thereby increasing the throughput in those devices,” Blackford notes. “We see a reduction in numbers of instructors per student throughput due to the ability of the students to learn on their own.”

Some other benefits include round-the-clock access to training content for those who want to train on personal time. Moreover, if the training platform is connected to a learning management system, the training can be measured easily. Finally, AR-enabled trainers make it easier to use lower-cost commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment, a move that accelerates the adoption rate of this technology, Blackford says.

The question of whether to use virtual reality (VR) or AR comes down to the type of training event: If the event requires a realistic touch, feel, and feedback, officials are more likely to go with an AR solution. But if the event is more about familiarization, VR is the preferred solution.

In the coming years, Blackford says that he expects AR technology to continue to mature to the point that most VR-based applications will evolve into the AR space.

“As key audiences become more comfortable with the technology, we believe it will be leveraged for additional training events,” he says. “You will always have groups who believe this type of training isn’t good enough, but as higher-fidelity full-flight trainers prove to instructors and students that they can learn through this technology, acceptance will increase and it will be used for more training tasks.

“The massive investment being made in the commercial industry toward this technology has already accelerated its adoption rate and we don’t see that slowing down anytime soon,” he adds.

Collins Aerospace is just one defense contractor using AR for training: In September 2022, AR developer Red 6 announced it was collaborating with Boeing on a project that involves “develop[ing] leading edge aerial dogfighting technology and training in advanced tactical aircraft,” according to a company statement. This project would involve putting Red 6’s Advanced Tactical Augmented Reality System (ATARS) and Augmented Reality Command and Analytics Data Environment (ARCADE) into Boeing-manufactured aircraft, like the T-7 and F-15EX platforms.

“Using the system, pilots will be able to see and interact with augmented reality aircraft, targets, and threats on the ground or in the air while flying and training in their actual aircraft, reducing the cost of and need for multiple platforms and ‘real world training exercises,’” the statement reads.

AR for manufacturing

AR isn’t just being used in training applications – companies see promise with manufacturing as well, particularly in conjunction with VR. Mike Ambrose, vice president of enterprise business transformation for Lockheed Martin subsidiary Sikorsky (Stratford, Connecticut), says that the company is using both AR and VR technology for every stage of the product lifecycle, from concept development to manufacturing to the supply chain. (Figure 2.)

[Figure 2 | Sikorsky’s factory floor in Stratford, Connecticut, where workers use AR and VR technology to improve manufacturing. Photo courtesy Lockheed Martin.]

“The model-based design data that we create to meet customer requirements … is incorporated into virtual-reality and augmented-reality tools that accelerate delivery,” he says.

The company uses both VR and AR technology to help engineers, factory-floor employees, aircraft maintainers, and the customers themselves “identify and implement efficient, ergonomic work processes,” Ambrose says.

He says that the company accomplishes this task by taking digital data and using it to design a factory that operates more quickly and efficiently.

“Our teams can use the digital model to make our aircraft easier to maintain, and even reduce problems through use of digital tools,” he says. “An example of this is the use of digital torque wrenches calibrated to tighten each bolt to the correct tolerance. When the bolt is tightened to the correct tolerance, the employee using VR glasses and the wrench sees a green signal that lets them know the job has been done correctly.” (Figure 3.)

[Figure 3 | A Sikorsky mechanic uses digitally automated tools on the CH-53K program. Photo courtesy Lockheed Martin.]

In the past, when companies only had computer-aided design, they did not have access to digital data on key attributes, specifications, and tolerances.

“In order to have things like virtual reality, you have to have all that data linked,” Ambrose says, who credited VR with reducing gearbox development from three years to a year and a half. “Once that data is in place, you can design the work environment, the work processes, and the aircraft using digital data.”

Asked whether the company placed more emphasis on VR or AR, Ambrose says both were essential.

“Augmented reality supplements virtual reality,” he asserts. “Model-based design and high-powered computing enable both of them.”

As for the future of AR and VR, Ambrose says the rise in computing power is likely to have a big impact.

“As computers become more sophisticated, VR technologies will have access to even more data,” he says. “Also, as more of our suppliers and customers become proficient in the use of these technologies, model-based design will become even more effective.”

AR on the battlefield

AR can also be used for battlefield applications. One of the chief potential benefits that the industry has zeroed in on: increasing situational awareness for soldiers.

Northrop Grumman (Falls Church, Virginia) is working with Microsoft’s HoloLens technology to create an AR headset that provides a graphical overlay on top of a transparent lens that can show additional information to the soldier. The soldier still sees the battlefield as normal, but the lens would provide an interface with detailed intelligence necessary to the mission, according to information on Northrop Grumman’s AR page.

Northrop Grumman’s info says that AR is currently being used by the US Army with the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS), which includes a ruggedized version of the HoloLens.

Some of the most promising future applications on the battlefield for AR technology include reconnaissance, command, and special operations, but its capabilities could go far beyond that.

On the company’s site, AR team member Wes Harden sums up the AR situation: “Ultimately, we’re developing a user interface that can be applied in a multitude of different ways to many different sectors.”

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