Why the Army Is Using Virtual Reality for Patriot System Training

December 16, 2015, 3:43 PM UTC

Virtual reality is changing the way the U.S. Army trains its soldiers. With the influx of affordable VR headsets like Oculus Rift, soldiers training to operate the Patriot air defense system can work as a team together before actually stepping foot in the field.

Raytheon, using Rift headsets from Facebook(FB)-owned Oculus and the Unity 3D video game engine, has designed a virtual reality simulation that allows up to three teams of five soldiers to train under the guidance of an instructor. Each soldier has a custom male or female avatar and can communicate via voice and hand signals.

The virtual reality training has been used by 50 to 100 trainees at the U.S. Army Air Defense Artillery School at Fort Sill in Lawton, Okla., during its evaluation period, according to Terry Stroud, senior manager in Raytheon’s training department. He anticipates a 2016 approval, which would result in the permanent integration of the technology as part of the Patriot suite of training devices.

“Once we get a green light we’ll deploy this technology to U.S.-based units,” Stroud says. “Since this setup, which we call ‘RT3,’ is portable, they could eventually be deployed to every Patriot unit around the world.”

Stroud says soldiers can work together in virtual reality on particular tasks like removing the canisters after missiles have been fired and reloading the launcher.

“There are certain things that the team has to do in a proper sequence, and do it safely, so the training system keeps track of all that and lets them know if they’ve made a mistake, and allows them do it over again,” Stroud says.

Stroud says virtual reality allows teams to prepare for the biannual certification tests that require real-world tactical equipment.

Col. John Eggert, project manager at the Army’s lower tier project office, says that in high-consequence training such as integrated air and missile defense, learning comprehension and retention is vital. He says many of the skills are perishable, and mobilizing the student’s interest as part of the learning experience helps to keep these skills fresh.

“This is groundbreaking in terms of how the military trains introductory material,” Eggert says. “By presenting the training in ways the training demographic is already familiar with, time to train and costs are significantly reduced while comprehension, interest, and enthusiasm on the part of the students increases. This is important, as training that captures the imagination and attention of the learner is retained longer, is better understood, and more effective.”

Christopher Smith, enterprise systems manager at Raytheon(RTN), says before virtual reality, this type of training would involve instructors walking students through the equipment. One of the dangers of that type of training, he says, is potential damage to the equipment, which is very expensive.

In addition to designing the simulation using video game technology, the first-person perspective experience features “mini-games” that are used to teach trainees things like hand signs, which Smith says play an important role out in the field.

“They do have to communicate with one another in the simulation just like in real life,” Smith says. “One team member might be standing at a certain location seeing where the crane is positioned, whereas the other one, who has no visual representation of where the crane is, will have to trust that crew member and see what hand signs they’re giving to safely move the crane into position.”

Stroud, who’s been around the Patriot system since it was introduced in 1982, says virtual reality has changed soldiers’ mindset.

“It’s one of the few training systems that soldiers look forward to, and in our experience, are waiting in line to try,” Stroud says. “They enjoy it and they get very competitive in it. It takes so much wear and tear off of the tactical system, and in the long term it’s a real money saver for the Army.”

In buying helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky, Lockheed Martin’s CEO is betting on a boost in defense spending. See what this means for the world’s largest defense contractor in this Fortune video:

Subscribe to Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the business of technology.

Read More

Artificial IntelligenceCryptocurrencyMetaverseCybersecurityTech Forward