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NAWCTSD’s Basic & Applied Training and Technology for Learning and Evaluation (BATTLE) Lab and Naval Aviation Survival Training Program (NASTP) Integrated Product Team (IPT) collaborated to form the PDP Trainer Transition Team, a team within a team. The PDP Team coordinated the acquisition process, from research to development to testing and transition efforts, to provide a training system that meets the Naval Survival Training Institute requirements. The team excelled with the development of the Parachute Descent Trainer (Skyfall) and received the 22nd Commander’s Award for Acquisition Support.
Aviators are required to know proper bailout procedures in case of ejections. The previous legacy training system relied on Virtual Reality (VR) technology to train aviators. While VR was cutting-edge technology, there were limitations that made the technology subpar. The goggles limited the student’s vision and were “not robust enough to handle the training,” said team lead of NASTP IPT and Naval aerospace operational physiologist, LCDR Jeremy Miller. The fragility of the VR goggles led to multiple damages. There were not enough spare parts to continuously repair the goggles, which led to creative solutions like using duct-tape to hold them together. Using the old VR tech was inefficient to the training process and inevitably needed to be improved.
Skyfall has no VR technology according to its 2018 fact sheet. Instead, the parachute descent trainer uses three LED screens and a physical interface that supports all Navy standard flight equipment and parachute equipment. The display can be reconfigured to look at any angle so that students get a more complete view. The display base solution also uses realism in its interface and better accommodates the Type Model Series (TMS). Skyfall allows students to have more mobility too, which helps aviators learn parachute descent training more effectively.
In the 2022 Commander’s Award Nomination submission form, the PDP identified three capability gaps: training quality and effectiveness, supportability, and training realism. The hardest capability gap to define – while trying to improve legacy methods – was training effectiveness. Prior to moving forward with their procurement strategy, the PDP Trainer Team investigated the effectiveness of the display base solution versus the VR technology. The study found there was “better performance with the display-based solution because of the ability to act more naturally and not have that virtual display,” BATTLE Lab team lead and senior research psychologist, Beth Atkinson said.
The PDP team’s goal was to develop a training solution that focused on cognitive decision making and minimized the amount of tech needed.
“We tried to come up with a single solution that would address all platforms in integration with aviation life support equipment and focus on the critical training objectives,” explained Atkinson. Skyfall allows the user to manipulate the virtual environment, wind speed, elevation, and the rate of sunshine.
“The reliability of the device almost brings it back to basics,” Miller said. He explained that the team followed the Keep it Short and Simple (KISS) model when considering objectives and the development of Skyfall. NAWCTSD’s vision to “accelerate warfighter readiness through training solutions” relies on efficiency, yet the VR technology, despite how cutting-edge it seemed, was a hindrance.
NAWCTSD stakeholders recognized and understood the importance of proper parachute descent training and voted to prioritize improving the training system. One of the challenges of providing acquisition support with Skyfall was meeting the stakeholder’s requirements. The team had to be confident that they were following the criteria before they submitted Skyfall for the acquisition support category. “Acquisition is not a simple process,” Atkinson said. “There’s a lot of people involved to make sure you are looking at every piece and part of a technology.”
Leadership skills were imperative to the success of this project. Although the PDP trainer transition team were not responsible for hands-on development of Skyfall. They decided the direction the technology was going, which took clear communication skills. “It comes down to being able to communicate with everyone involved,” Miller said. “There are multiple competencies here so keeping communication fluid is important to filling the gaps in technology for our students.”
SoarTech, a software company specializing in innovative artificial intelligence (AI) solutions, is the team responsible for the physical design and development of Skyfall, originally conceived and designed in 2016 through a Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) contract.
Soartech collaborated closely with NAWCTSD and the Naval Survival Training Institute (NSTI) to ensure Skyfall aligned with training objectives. “The objective is getting our warfighters on the ground safely,” said Brian Stensrud, SoarTech’s Director of Simulation and the lead principal investigator on the SkyFall program.
The simplicity of Skyfall is an advantage to students. During parachute descent, the warfighter can descend at any location and be obstructed by multiple factors. Parachute lines tangle, the wind carries the parachute in a different direction, etc., and the warfighter only has active control over their harness, the parachute connection lines, and steering equipment.
Skyfall emulates this experience by displaying the open parachute on the screen above, which prompts the student to identify the specific parachute fault. The student can then fix the issue by adjusting their parachute lines during training. The two monitors facing the student represent the environment the student is landing in.
The design also prioritized training effectiveness and affordability. The wide-open space allows the student to move while they are suspended by the straps, while the process of strapping into Skyfall only takes two straps, a harness and a ladder, so the students can set up and cycle through the system faster. Additionally, this configuration provides significant flexibility for the instructor to move around and guide the student during training exercises.
Skyfall also provides immediate feedback of the student’s results automatically after the training ends, through an automatically-generated after action review screen that is displayed for the student and instructor. The reinforced screens minimize damage during use and prevent the need for spare parts. There is even a red button that shuts the system off and on without necessary reconfiguration for every class.
SoarTech has had multiple SkyFall prototypes present at Navy facilities for several years, and as a result has received a wealth of feedback from users, instructors, and other stakeholders. This feedback from the fleet has allowed SoarTech to make multiple improvements and modifications to the system over the course of the program. The communication and collaboration between SoarTech, NAWCTSD, and NSTI has been critical to the program’s success.
NAWCTSD’s oversight and leadership of the program has been led by Beth Atkinson, senior research psychologist and lead of the Basic & Applied Training & Technologies for Learning & Evaluation (BATTLE) lab. “Beth has been fantastic to work with,” said Stensrud. “She has been our advocate since the beginning, and we consider her a core part of our team.”
The information provided in this article is provided for information only. Publication of this material does not constitute or imply its endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense (DoD).
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