A California-based company wants to prepare more Air Force fighter pilots to dogfight Chinese and Russian opponents by using artificial intelligence and augmented reality as antagonists while they're actually flying in real-time training.
Daniel Robinson, founder and CEO of Red 6 Aerospace, said his company's latest technology could provide more affordable and advanced training.
Robinson was the first British Royal Air Force pilot to train on the F-22 Raptor in the U.S., graduating from the two-month training program at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, in 2006. While assigned to Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, he said he observed the same thing that a Government Availability Office report found more than a decade later: Fighters like the F-22 are not being used to their full potential, with severely limited opportunities for pilot training.
"I really identified the core of the problem that I wanted to solve, and that was, in essence, 'How do we train?'" Robinson said in an interview this month with Military.com.
The company, which received an investment from Lockheed Martin, has been working with AFWERX -- an Air Force innovation program that partners with small businesses and academia -- over the last three years through a series of Small Business Innovation Research contracts. The company expects to receive a Phase III SBIR contract soon valued between $25 million and $70 million, Robinson said.
Through the combination of modified hardware and software technologies Red 6 has created, pilots would wear a display technology or visor on their helmets while flying in a fighter aircraft.
Artificial reality is a smart computer or machine that learns over time. Augmented reality blends the digital space with the real world -- unlike virtual reality, which is all in the digital world.
"This technology works in a real airplane against artificial intelligence-driven augmented reality aircraft up in the sky, which is a fascinating thing to contemplate," Robinson said.
"When we look through that visor, we see synthetically generated aircraft, or virtual aircraft … that are not actually really there," he said. The generated images are made possible by the Airborne Tactical Augmented Reality System, known as A-TARS, which works in tandem with the tactical AI made by EpiSci.
The AI-driven image "looks at maneuvers and fights" in relation to a pilot, who is flying a real airplane at the time. "Those synthetically generated aircraft are driven and controlled by artificial intelligence -- so it's the craziest thing. You have something that doesn't exist, that you see and perceive to exist, controlled by artificial intelligence," Robinson said.
The Aggressor Gap
The Air Force has worked to contract more pilots, many of whom are U.S. military retirees, to fill the "red air" aggressor training gap, allowing more active-duty pilots to attain air-to-air training on the friendly, or "blue air," side.
In 2019, the service issued an indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract for the red air program to ATAC, a subsidiary of Textron Airborne Solutions; Air USA Inc.; Blue Air Training; Coastal Defense; Draken International; Tactical Air Support, known as TacAir; and Top Aces Corp.
Outsourcing the service's assault and combat training to these companies cost $6.4 billion, according to the contract announcement.
But is it enough? The service wants quality training, not quantity, said Mike Holmes, a retired general who was head of Air Combat Command between 2017 and 2020. He is now chairman of Red 6's board of directors.
"The real shortage that I faced was a shortage of experienced fighter pilots," said Holmes, who took part in the interview with Robinson. "There aren't enough hours and flight time available for pilots to practice advanced air training."
Contracting with more companies for additional aircraft isn't the solution, he said. "Even if there were enough contract sorties available to do it, can you afford to pay for the fuel for all those flying hours?" Holmes said.
Today's pilots need to practice against an aircraft that can behave like a Chinese stealth fighter -- not a dated aircraft, Robinson added.
"The kind of threats that we may be called to go against in any kind of near-peer conflict are very difficult for us to simulate in training, because gone are the days when we could use [F-15 Eagles] or [F-16 Fighting Falcons] or [F/A-18 Super Hornets] to simulate things like a MiG-29 or Su-27," Robinson said.
The training issue is compounded by years of budget cuts, alongside the "manpower, supply chains and everything that goes with it," he said.
Adjusting Flight-Hour Standards
For decades, the Air Force designated an advanced pilot as having 500 or more hours in the cockpit. That standard meant that "you've seen enough things to where you can be mature enough to make decisions under pressure," Holmes said.
But over the last three years, the service realized it needed to adjust that standard. Pilots were able to attain many flight hours just by conducting overwatch in Iraq or Afghanistan, simply flying in circles, Holmes explained.
"From that, you're not seeing all that you need to see," he said, referring to specialized training needed against a skilled adversary.
"The criteria an Air Force pilot must meet to be considered experienced varies by aircraft," said ACC spokeswoman Alexi Worley in an email Wednesday. "That said, around 2019, similar changes were made to each Air Force fighter aircraft's specific experienced pilot criteria, replacing the 500 flight-hour standard."
Now, the service weighs real-world events or training during an exercise more heavily.
Another change included using a "4-Ship Flight Lead Certification and a commensurate number of sorties, based on experience, in the[ir] assigned aircraft," Worley said.
Holmes said future red air training may include going up against both an AI and the contracted companies.
Proving the Concept
Robinson's vision to bring artificial intelligence into simulated dogfighting began on the ground: In 2015, he met virtual reality specialists Glenn Snyder and Nick Bicanic, who worked extensively in pairing AI with car racing. They both now work at Red 6.
Snyder "had taken two real race cars, put them on two separate racetracks at the same time with real race car drivers in them," Robinson said. Wearing virtual reality headsets, they raced in the virtual world, but they were still behind the steering wheel in the real world, he explained.
Robinson wanted to know whether a similar feat would be possible with fighter jets.
"With virtual reality, we disappear into an entirely virtual world, and we don't see the surroundings around us. Augmented is a more nuanced problem to solve, because we seek to place synthetic entities into the real world around us. We are just overlaying digital images into the real world," he said.
Though they encountered many challenges, Robinson, Bicanic and Snyder believe the technology is ready.
Depending on the need, the AI could play its traditional red air role or act as a wingman to the pilot, Robinson said. It could even have applications for student pilots, Holmes said.
"We think it has applications starting from the very earliest part of training," Holmes said, referring to undergraduate pilot training. Robinson said pilots also could practice refueling their jets via refueling boom from a tanker aircraft before they have their first tanker sortie.
Additional applications someday could include partners and allies that come to conduct large-scale training exercises in the U.S., such as Red Flag.
There is no official program of record to incorporate Red 6's technology into the service's everyday training. Before it can receive significant budget backing, it must prove its potential, said Robert Winkler, who serves as a staffer on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Augmented reality has been incorporated into the military's day-to-day activities over the years, but the fast-paced training environment is a much larger undertaking, Winkler said during a Mitchell Institute event Tuesday. Robinson and Holmes were also part of the event with reporters.
"[You're] going to have to prove [it] to folks as far as latency as far as the ability to make a difference in training," Winkler said. "It is something that is easily explained, [but] based on our current culture that we have, we just have to go do it."