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Virtual air-to-air refueling

Augmented reality for actual aircraft

With fuel prices what they are, it’s not easy staying air-to-air refueling proficient in your F–35. To help out, Red 6 created a new generation of augmented reality (AR) that allows pilots in real aircraft to see both virtual targets and friendlies as well as a wingman and other avatars in daylight.

Until Red 6’s recent development, AR exercises were limited to dark rooms because AR systems couldn’t be made bright enough to overcome daylight. However, Red 6 creates AR experiences that are visible even in direct  sunlight, allowing pilots wearing visors to look around and see AR-generated avatars along with the real world. Red 6’s Chief Revenue Officer Kevin “Uncle” Fesler made the announcement during a presentation at UP Summit in Bentonville, Arkansas, June 8.

Fesler, a former U.S. Air Force pilot, said the company uses experimental Berkut 540s to train pilots in formation flying and aerial refueling, for example. Flight in the high-performance Berkuts helps pilots experience the G-loads and flight control forces not possible in a simulator. “Connecting multiple live aircraft into one common augmented reality environment, outdoors, up in the sky, is a significant technical milestone,” he said.

During a demo at UP Summit I donned a visor while standing in a hangar and was able to “see” a Boeing KC-46 Pegasus tanker just ahead of my simulated Berkut cockpit. Off to my right was a simulated Lockheed Martin F–35 flying in formation, also waiting for a chance to tank. However, had I actually been flying in the Berkut, the F–35 could have been another piloted Berkut rather than just an avatar, allowing the two real airplanes to maneuver and interact with various avatars—friendlies and foes. We could have begun practicing dogfight maneuvers, something difficult to teach in a simulator.

As Red 6 founder Daniel Robinson put it in a statement: “Two Red 6 Test Pilots took off in Berkut [540s] from California’s Santa Monica Airport. Upon entering Red 6’s Combined Augmented Reality Battlespace Operation Network (CARBON), over Ventura County, each pilot could see and interact with the same AR generated KC-46 Pegasus Tanker, from their respective aircraft. Red 1 conducted a training mission on the AR refueling Tanker while Red 2 was able to observe Red 1 and the AR Tanker in real time.”

While Red 6’s primary audience for such technology is currently the military, Fesler noted that the technology could easily be used to support civilian training as well. Medevac helicopter pilots, for example, might benefit from such a rich AR training environment. While hovering safely in an open field, through their visor during training, they might see simulated ambulances, people, wires, and other challenges as they maneuver to land. Flight instructors might turn on pathways in the sky that a beginning aerobatic student might follow to complete a loop or roll, for example. As the student’s skills improve, the CFI could turn off segments of the pathway. Similarly, a CFI might have a student follow a pathway around a traffic pattern, turning off segments as the student begins to master them, forcing them to look outside.

Fesler said the technology runs on a fairly basic computer and can be projected on many different types of devices, not just expensive and heavy military helmets with visors. The company is currently focused on fulfilling its military contracts, but will eventually seek civilian opportunities.

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines

Contributor (former Editor in Chief)
Contributor and former AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.
Topics: Technology, Avionics

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