“It’s an ever-evolving process with this type of technology,” Lt. Col. James Schreiner, an associate professor in the Department of Systems Engineering, said explaining the nuances of the latest virtual aviation training technology at West Point. This new technology is augmenting and improving how the Army trains Soldiers for flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama.
As part of a cadet’s senior design capstone program, Maj. Clay Woody, an assistant professor at the Department of Engineering, and the cadets who are a part of the capstone program are currently in the infancy phase of consolidating this new technology. Working on this project has allowed the team to develop efficient faculty research capabilities, Woody said.
“We’re taking this research immediately into the classroom, (the cadets) are getting their hands on these devices and the focus of their research, in this capstone, is to see if we can leverage this device as a selection tool,” Woody said. “So, the question I ask is, can we put potential future aviators coming out of West Point through a battery of tests in this device to determine their propensity for success here and in-flight school as they move on from West Point? That’s part of what we’re trying to surmise.”
Schreiner added the research for this capstone project has been ongoing for over a year. Back in the summer of 2019, The Directorate of Simulation at Fort Rucker also desired to determine a Soldier’s propensity for success. At the time, they had already contracted vendors to develop and code the virtual reality systems and bring it on to Fort Rucker.
Subsequently, Schreiner, Woody and other faculty members from the Department of Systems Engineering contacted Maj. Gen. David Francis at U.S. Army Training Doctrine and Command (G-3/5/7) at the Pentagon, and informed him on West Point’s capacity for research.
“We reached out to the G-3/5/7 offices and we told them, ‘what we would like to do is meet with you and your team to see if there’s anything specific that you would like for us to work on to obviously integrate ourselves back with the big Army, to stay in touch with the big Army, to provide value to the big Army,’” Woody said. “And so, when we sat down with him, immediately within the first five minutes when we gave our pitch as to what we’re capable of doing here, he said, ‘Absolutely.’”
For Woody, the attractive characteristics of this simulation device is that it’s a commercially packaged solution that satisfies the needs of the Army and it came at a low price.
Following the purchase, the interest became whether it was possible to train new flight school students at Fort Rucker on how to fly an aircraft. If it can be done, what is the right mixture between the new virtual reality simulator and live aircraft training, Woody asked?
“Our role was to go down to Fort Rucker and set up a design of experiments and do the analysis from a quality perspective as to what kind of students we were able to produce,” Woody said. “The main thing that we were focusing on for that first year was that if we train in this device, are we at least as good, if not better than, what we’re already producing at Fort Rucker? Then we asked, ‘we are already producing a tremendous high quality of aviators out of Fort Rucker, so do we want to sacrifice that? And so, Gen. Francis wanted an outside organization to do the objective analysis.”
Moreover, 32 virtual reality devices were purchased and shipped to Fort Rucker and about 1,000 students were trained. The students at Fort Rucker were split into two groups: the first group would go through their session on the simulator while the second group was a user control group to compare performances, Woody added.
Consequently, based on a thorough examination of test results and the evaluations of the aviation instructors, Woody’s analysis revealed no regression in the student’s aviation training through the simulator, Schreiner said.
“The results on my analysis wasn’t a magic bullet by any means, but it was at least enough to continue to explore this capability. So, with that, in the Department of Systems Engineering, what we saw was a tremendous opportunity to develop our own capacity internally for some additional (ergonomics) research. If we could get students and faculty into this device, we could look at you know, things like biometric feedback,” Schreiner said.
Additionally, Cognitive Load, an aviation term that describes the physiological and psychological capacity an aviator has to complete his or her mission, is a crucial component of training that aviation branches across the Department of Defense evaluate, Woody said.
“The DOD is looking at how well do they make decisions in the cockpit,” Woody said. “So, it’s important to understand what characteristics of an individual we might be looking at to evaluate someone on their ability to manage cognitive load and to make good decisions in an aircraft.”
Two Capstone teams are currently using brand new virtual reality simulators at West Point to go over decision-making associated with training pilots and to look at some of the cognitive challenges associated with learning the skills needed to fly an aircraft. As the research continues to evolve, the team continues layering on other technology that would allow them to see the cognitive loads on a pilot going through a scenario, Schreiner explained.
“At the Operations Research Center (ORCEN), one of our two research centers at the Department of Systems Engineering, it’s very common that we do work for a real Army client, and then the following year when those analysts like Maj. Woody come out of their year-long experience working through ORCEN,” Schreiner said. “Now, they’re able to bring those experiences into senior design capstones teaching cadets.”
Schreiner added they used some of the research Woody compiled, during his analysis at Fort Rucker, to enrich the classroom experience in coming academic terms. For Schreiner, it’s about showing cadets what’s in the realm of possibility and how technologies such as virtual reality can help influence decision-making.
Faculty and cadet systems engineers and engineering managers can monitor the screen that displays what the cadets see through their virtual reality goggles.
“The cadet in the VR simulator might be scanning gauges on the aircraft’s speed or the pitch of the aircraft and something happens off in the distance where we would expect the pilot to turn left or right and what information is the pilot taking in before they recognize and then decide on their next move,” Schreiner said. “How fast is all the visual information coming at the pilot as (he or she) makes a decision, and are they picking up the visual queues? The Testing and Evaluation of their performance helps us determine their skill level as operators as well as how effective the cockpit design might be. And so, you could think of a million applications of VR to determine cockpit design considerations or maybe whether a heads up display could make a difference.”
The two capstone teams are still trying to get over their learning curve with the simulations running flight scenarios continuously until they bend that curve and reach a baseline of proficiency.
“We’re always trying to get better and it’s continuous improvement that drives our mentality here,” Schreiner said. “And so, cadets shouldn’t rest on their laurels. You want to use these technologies to examine their useability and usefulness in training and evaluating performance.
“The capstone experience is enabled by the VR technology, which can enhance a cadet’s ability to grow as a future leader by thinking about the system performance and decision making while also helping to identify how you ultimately design, influence and improve the next generation of technologies,” he concluded.