Virtual and augmented reality technologies have gone mainstream in the last decade and are making a big impact in many sectors, including aviation maintenance. The COVID-19 pandemic is also speeding up the adoption of digital technologies, including virtual/simulation training – with restrictions on travel, virtual training and support is often the only option.
With the cost of military aircraft, especially fighters, on the rise, maintenance is more important than ever as fleets shrink and availability rates need to be high. With fifth generation fighters costing close to US $100 million and becoming ever more complex, air forces can ill afford to have their front-line aircraft commandeered for maintenance training or damaged by poor maintenance techniques. Simulation allows students to make mistakes at essentially no cost, and repeat exercises as many times as they want. Simulators and virtual trainers are now heavily used to bridge the gap from the classroom to the aircraft, while augmented reality enhances training and improves real-time support.
Today, augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality solutions are becoming mainstream as higher resolution graphics, head-mounted displays and improved computing power come to the fore. Initially, digital/simulation training was typically done via desktop computer systems. Now, using virtual and augmented reality, it is possible to simulate and reproduce situations in a safe environment that would otherwise be costly, complex, dangerous, or difficult to replicate. De-icing training on aircraft, for example, can be done at any time with virtual reality rather than only in winter.
Before the advent of virtual and augmented reality, real-world composite maintenance trainers (CMTs) were the primary simulation training tools for aircraft technicians. These are typically full-scale aircraft mock-ups, allowing students to interact with physical controls. Although quite expensive, the use of composite maintenance trainers is growing as they offer added realism and help instil a safety culture – CMTs are more representative in simulating the actual environment a trainee will encounter. CMTs are an important accompaniment to purely digital training systems such as virtual maintenance trainers (VMTs).