“Until a few weeks ago, I was in the Air Force training fighter pilots,” says General Mike Holmes, USAF (ret.), former Commander, Air Combat Command at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia. “I was responsible for about a third of our pilots trained each year. And our approach was still the same as it was in the 1950s. Now I want to help the Air Force get out of its own way.”
That’s why Holmes signed on last month as a member of the Advisory Board for Red 6, the startup that’s developing a real-time, in-flight augmented reality (AR) pilot training system. Red 6 got its start in early 2019, and has received Air Force Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase 1 and 2 grants totaling $1.6 million, while also raising a total of $5.8 million in venture capital funding.
The company’s product is the Airborne Tactical Augmented Reality System (A-TARS), a visor-based system that digitally generates virtual objects that a student pilot can see and interact with, in broad daylight and in dynamic situations. That can translate to AR training encounters with everything from a Russian SU-57 fighter jet to the refueling drogue of a KC-46 tanker.
“We set out to solve for an acute, defined pain point for the U.S. military,” said Dan Robinson, CEO of Red 6, veteran of the British Fighter Weapons School (their version of Top Gun), and the first non-American to fly the U.S. F-22 Raptor fighter. “How do you take kids off the street and get them to where they’re ready to fly a fighter jet? Once you’ve taught them to take off and land, the rest is taught in formation. It occurred to us that there’s a lot of goodness in taking ‘baby pilots’ to that stage.”
Just how to do that was part of the problem. “Every time a fighter pilot trains, you have to have someone to fight against,” Robinson explained. “That’s tough on finances, assets, and people. And even if you can afford it, the quality’s not always there.”
Changes in current threats also pose a challenge. “For the longest time the focus has been on using air power to support ground troops,” said Robinson. “But with the re-emergence of Russia, and the rise of China, things have changes. It’s very difficult to simulate the types of near-term threats we have now.”
“We can simulate some events pilots need to learn,” added Holmes. “But we couldn’t really simulate visual very well. So then you’re flying an F-35 versus an F-35, and that’s $60,000 an hour times two.”
“We knew we had to find a different way,” Robinson said. “It was back in 2009 that I got thinking about that. I met Glenn Snyder (now co-founder and Chief Product Officer of Red 6), who achieved a world’s first in VR by having two actual race car drivers in separate locations race each other–a real race, against each other in virtual reality. I asked if that would be possible in an airplane, and he said yes. Then I asked if it was possible in AR, and he said no, because it doesn’t work outdoors or in a dynamic environment. So those problems are what we set out to solve.” The technical difficulties included making the AR images bright enough for daylight, and having them move realistically from a platform that itself is maneuvering while traveling at high speed.
Not only have they now solved those challenges, but they have a functional demonstration system based on Robinson’s experimental Berkut airplane that has impressed the Air Force enough that the Red 6 team was invited to Air Combat Command earlier this year, and they’re now preparing for an SBIR Phase 3 contract worth $25 million, which they expect by mid-December. The next step for the A-TARS system is to roll it out into the Air Force’s T-38 Talon jet trainers.
“The pilot training environment is the right place to start with this,” Holmes said. “We’re trying to change the old industrial training model to pilots advancing at their own rate, with actual flying along with AR. That will give us better pilots, and we’ll do it cheaper.”
The Air Force is just a start, though. “I think what we’re doing solves a national security problem, and gets us halfway to a consumer solution too,” said Robinson. “My vision ultimately is to connect all war fighters–land, sea, air, etc. The value proposition is to genuinely have the technology to train to fight across all domains. That will make for more effective training, make it more cost-effective, and will reduce the carbon footprint as well.”
“You can imagine other scenarios,” added Holmes. “It doesn’t take more than a few minutes’ brainstorming to see other areas Dan’s technology can help with training.”
Meanwhile, both Holmes and Robinson feel good about where things stand today. “It does have that cool factor,” Holmes said. “It’s been lots of fun to watch Dan and his team. They were told it couldn’t be done, and they went and figured it out.”
“The overall landscape is that the AR industry has had the crap kicked out of it,” Robinson added. “It’s had some pretty large failures. We’re one of the biggest stories, and we’re doing something really important for the country.”