Training More Effectively with VR Flight Simulators

The Challenge: Expensive Virtual Reality That Doesn’t Achieve Training Goals

The U.S. military is grappling with two related trends affecting its approach to training new generations of combat pilots. First, a chronic pilot shortage is affecting all military services, increasing the imperative for training that is fast and highly effective.

In addition, advancing technology is enabling the military services to pivot to virtual reality (VR) aviation training. This enables them to decrease their reliance on large, expensive flight simulators and embrace greater use of small-footprint, individualized simulators to move more student pilots through their training curricula. Known as immersive training devices (ITD)—or “sleds”—the flight simulators consist of a chair, flight controls, a monitor, computer hardware and software, and network connectivity.

While there is much promise for the immersive devices to deliver more effective training, the military services have struggled to realize that potential. One reason is that—unlike larger, more expensive flight simulators—the immersive devices are not single, integrated systems that come from an original equipment manufacturer. Rather, they consist of a dozen or more components from multiple vendors that must be integrated onsite. This integration tends to be viewed narrowly, as simply connecting components. This approach leads to limited utility—the immersive devices may work, but not in the way that flight instructors originally envisioned.

Another problem is that, too often, little attention is given to how the immersive devices will be managed to reach the desired training objectives. The process of synching up ITD hardware and software with training objectives is a dynamic one: Training objectives can and do shift. Moreover, an agile approach is often required to determine which device configuration works best to facilitate the curriculum.

In short, military services investing in the immersive training devices often get tripped up by the so-called “last mile” problem: it is not enough simply to have these devices onsite and available to students—they also need to be integrated thoughtfully into the training program so that they advance specific objectives and remain effective as training priorities and curriculums shift over time.

The Solution: Tying VR Training to Measures of Success

With these challenges in mind, the Navy’s aviation training leads brought Booz Allen in to oversee its effort to incorporate ITDs into numerous training programs across the country. The Booz Allen team worked with its Navy customer to develop a common view of what a mature ITD program should look like. This involved, for example, developing approaches for technology integration, documentation, quality reviews, and other aspects of the program.

The Booz Allen team followed a clear path moving forward. This consisted of: (a) thinking broadly about the complex task of integration; (b) placing a primary focus on how ITDs are aligned to training programs with measurable results; (c) ensuring the programs are sustainable and scalable; and (d) providing contract flexibility to embrace technology advances.

A critical early step was to conduct a thorough needs analysis, to better understand what would determine success beyond the core tasks of setting up and maintaining the ITDs themselves. The team examined factors such as curriculum objectives, training effectiveness, network architecture, and facility design.

Additionally, Booz Allen’s holistic approach to integration meant having a wide range of expertise on hand—either from Booz Allen itself or its broader partner ecosystem—to address the many contingencies that arose.

To ensure that the immersive devices fully meet the Navy’s training needs, the Booz Allen team facilitates regular conversations with instructors, training command leaders, and software and hardware developers. As a result of the conversation, the team may, for example, modify or optimize an existing software suite, or introduce new training exercises to the ITDs’ offerings. 

The Results: Substantially Reducing Training Time

The Navy-wide effort to improve its ITD programs—which was coordinated by Booz Allen—led to significant results. The Navy found that students progressed 25% faster to milestones and had 14% lower sortie counts as compared with comparable flight hours. This reduced the total time to train by about 2.5 weeks, or 8.5%. 

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