A Santa Monica, CA based start- up, Red 6, has announced a $1.5M development grant from AFWERX (the US Air Force tech incubator) to use augmented reality to solve what co-founder and CEO Dan Robinson calls “the military’s multi-billion dollar pain point.” The USAF alone is over 2,000 pilots short and is spending billions of dollars per year to providing adversary air-to-air training through the same expensive, dangerous and costly mock dogfights used for training in WWI.
The training of combat pilots for close range air-to-air combat, ground attack, and refueling is complex, expensive, and dangerous. Large and expensive simulators were previously the best way to put a pilot in a “cockpit” for near peer air adversary training, but even the most advanced military simulators have limited effectiveness. Crucially, simulators leave out the most important feature of air combat: cognitive load. The speed, G-forces, and telemetry of real fighter aircraft induce significant cognitive stress on modern day fighter pilots.
Robinson says, “simulators play an important role in the training cycle of a fighter pilot. However, they cannot accurately represent the real world stresses that fighter pilots experience when they fly.” The solution, he concluded, was to put Augmented Reality (AR) in the aircraft, the most advanced of which, were filled with rudimentary AR solutions for targeting, but without any ability to present artificial targets to aviators.
Tracking a pilot’s head, gaze direction, the positional dynamics of a real aircraft, and matching the AR entities presented to the pilot in real time requires near zero visual latency, and unheard of processing speeds and transmission rates. In order for the system to be an effective training tool, it must mimic the operational environment and not leave the user feeling like they are looking through a soda straw, requiring the system to present a much wider field of view than AR systems currently on the market.
Robinson, a former Royal Air Force Tornado pilot who graduated from the UK’s version of Top Gun and was the first non-American designated as an instructor pilot in the world’s most advanced fighter, the F-22, proposed a two-part, eighteen month sprint to the US Air Force’s AFWERX accelerator. This consisted of hitting two milestones: One, demonstrating their technology would work on the ground, and effectively simulate air-to-air combat and in-flight refueling, and two, prove it could present a fixed-in-space AR entity that is visible from a real world moving airplane in daylight. The ground demonstration piece was met in February 2019, and following initial airborne demonstrations for the USAF in early November, that included not only fixed objects, but multiple moving AR aircraft, the second milestone was exceeded. Robinson believes the USAF will be using this system with all pilots within the next five to seven years, as the USAF needs to increase the number of training sorties by more than 100% by 2030.
The engineering sprint was funded by a small initial USAF AFWERX grant and a $2.5M seed round of venture capital led by Moonshots Capital, a venture capital firm with military veteran leadership that recognizes the broader commercial applications that this technological breakthrough represents.
Colonel Randall “Laz” Gordon of AFWERX, the USAF’s rapid technology development organization, stated, “It’s exciting that Red 6 has created such a cutting-edge solution aimed at maintaining our competitive advantage. Their approach marks the genesis of a new paradigm in training and offers enormous potential for the future. There has never been an outdoor Augmented Reality solution like this before." Red 6 has received both Small Business Innovative Research Phase I and a $1.5M Phase II award from AFWERX based-on the soundness, technical merit, and innovation of Red 6’s approach to solving a compelling USAF need. Red 6 is the longest running program within AFWERX.
“Spatial computing is going to play a much bigger role for consumers,” predicted Robinson. “Currently we are operating with a daylight capable, 105 degree field of view system, but the display technology we are developing over the next 18-24 months is even more compelling, and can be applied to all use cases for the general consumer.”
Robinson first met his co-founders, Nick Bicanic, Red 6’s Chief Technology Officer and Glenn Snyder, Chief Product Officer, in 2017. “I was frustrated with the status quo that existed within the AR industry as a whole,” said Bicanic. “The technology always fascinated me but my frustration was that in its current state, it is a solution in search of a problem, searching for a home.”
Snyder, who is also co-creator of the now legendary VR demonstration Virtual Drift, said “What Dan presented to us when we met with him, was the exact opposite of a solution searching for a problem. Critically, he identified an extremely compelling and extremely challenging use case for augmented reality software and hardware.”
“Ultimately, this is about delivering critical capabilities to our war fighters. This is what I’m most passionate about,” said Robinson. “However, our technology road map is carefully aligned to the broader consumer market. When that inflexion point arrives, we’ll be ready, but right now, I think we’ve got the most compelling story in AR.”
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