Fighter pilots will don augmented reality helmets for training

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In the near future, “Top Gun” may get a reboot.

Roughly one year from now, fighter pilots will begin flying with helmets outfitted with visors that can augment reality and place digital replicas of enemy fighter jets in their field of vision. For the first time, pilots will get to fly in the air and practice maneuvering against imitations of highly advanced aircraft made by countries like China and Russia.

It is part of the U.S. military’s investment of billions of dollars into virtual reality, artificial intelligence and algorithms to modernize the way it fights wars.

The pilot training solution, created by military technology company Red6, will be rolled out to the Air Force first as part of its $70 million contract with the branch. Company and former military officials say the technology will be a safe, cheap and realistic way to ensure American pilots are prepared to battle the best fighter planes in the world.

“Better, faster, cheaper,” said Daniel Robinson, founder and chief executive of Red6. “This is the way we’ll train them in the future.”

For decades, the way America trains its fighter pilots has changed little. Aviators from the Air Force and Navy often start their training flying on a Northrop T-38 jet, often using a similar syllabus to one that has been around since the 1960s. From there, they train on planes, such as F-22 or F-35 fighter jets, that they will fly during their career.

A crucial component to training is imitating battle. To do so, the military provides its pilots a combination of flight simulators and actual flying to sharpen their skills. The Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, widely known as “Top Gun,” inspired a blockbuster movie franchise that introduced millions to pilot training techniques.

But the military faces significant issues in training fighter pilots. Using simulators cannot replicate the feel of being in the air and maneuvering against an opponent, said Red6 board chairman and retired Air Force Gen. Mike Holmes, though they are budget friendly.

On the other hand, putting pilots in the air to train is costly, ranging anywhere from $15,000 to $100,000 per flying hour depending on the aircraft, and dangerous. Pilot accidents have been on the rise, reports indicate, with 72 in fiscal 2020.

Moreover, when pilots go up in the air to sharpen their combat techniques, the military typically contracts opponents for the simulated fight. These companies that pretend to be aggressors often rely on aircraft that are not as sophisticated as fifth-generation fighter jets used by Chinese and Russian militaries.

Holmes said this is worrisome. For two decades, pilots have trained to fight against targets in the Middle East. But now, China and Russia are higher priorities, and the United States is less prepared to battle against their more capable, and highly advanced, fighter jet squadrons. “To keep relevant,” he said, “we’re going to have to push up our training game over the next several years.”

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