Student pilots tested in virtual reality flights

January 12, 2018 11:11:28 AM

Slim Smith - [email protected]


Virtual reality training is hardly a new concept in the U.S. Air Force. Student pilots have been using a form of "VR" for decades in the form of flight simulator (SIM) technology. 


But this week, 30 students at Columbus Air Force Base are taking part in a research project with a different type of VR. 


While flight simulators show what a pilot has learned, this week's research focuses on how they learn through the use of a VR headset that not only better replicates the actual experience of flying, but allows instructors to monitor the pilot's bio-metrics to maximize the learning experience and identify weaknesses. 


"What we are looking to study is really how people learn, especially with emerging technologies, and what variables we can determine that would indicate people's performance at certain tasks," Maj. Matt Elmore said. "It's particularity relevant using flying training with what we're dealing with in the Air Force and our need for pilots." 


Elmore and Maj. Travis Sheets are students at Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. This week's study is their research program, an 11-month project Elmore hopes will change the way pilots are trained. 


The two will use the data they have collected from students participating in the study to show how new applications of VR can enhance pilot training. 


Students ranging from those with zero experience to those who are near the completion of their training are using the new VR technology along with the conventional SIM training to determine how the two complement each other. 


The training began Wednesday by having each student perform in the conventional SIM training, followed by 30 minutes using the VR technology. On Thursday, students spent another hour using VR training. Today, the students will return for another session in the SIM. Elmore and Sheets will then analyze the results to determine the effect of the VR training. 


"What makes our system unique is that it's one of the first instances of using bio-metric cognitive measurements through the eye to measure how the students are how much of their cognitive load is being tasked with any given activity," Elmore said. 


He said the VR system helps maximize learning. 


"We are able to tell how much information the student can process based on what we are seeing in his performance," Elmore said. "When they make errors, it helps us know if they have maximized their cognitive load or, on the other end, have them become complacent. The idea is that using this well help us to train pilots at level as close to the upper end of their cognitive load as possible. 


"If we do that, we're training better pilots and training them faster," he added. 


Lt. Keegan Reynolds, 24, is one of the test group with no real flying experience. 


"My only time in an aircraft was six hours in a Cessna two years ago," said Reynolds, who leaves today to begin his pilot training program in Colorado. "I haven't had any SIM work, either, so all of this was new to me." 


Even so, Reynolds said he believes participating in the study this week will be a benefit as he begins his training. 


"I'm really excited to have this opportunity," he said. "I can already tell I'm a lot better in the SIM than I was yesterday. I'm glad they used me as a guinea pig. The more time you get in an environment like this, the better pilot you will be." 


Elmore said that above all else, he hopes the study will give instructors more insight into how they prepare their students. 


"What we're trying to find out is what is the pilot's capacity to learn," Elmore said. "The more we understand that, the better pilots we'll be able to produce."

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]