PATUXENT RIVER, Md. –
A new parachute descent training system developed at the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division (NAWCTSD) is on its way to better help ensure naval aviators are better prepared for every real-life situation that could happen in midair.
The system, dubbed “SkyFall,” will replace the legacy system—a virtual reality (VR) headset and harness in use for the past two decades.
“We’re bringing it back to basics,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jeremy Miller, NAWCTSD’s Naval Aviation Survival Training Program Level III Integrated Product Team lead. “[SkyFall] offers more realism.”
The Parachute Descent Trainer Procedure Transition Team was recently awarded a 2022 NAWCAD Commander’s Award for innovation in the category of team acquisition support for their efforts in providing a novel, immersive training experience to replace the one currently in use.
The Navy has a requirement that naval aviators receive Parachute Descent Procedure Training to prepare them in the event of an ejection, but the current system, while state-of-the-art over 20 years ago, now seems outdated, utilizing a bulky headset and VR goggles. The headset limited the student’s peripheral vision and had tracking issues. It was also very fragile, and replacement parts have become increasingly difficult to find over the years, hence the need for an alternative.
The development of SkyFall began in 2016. The team considered several approaches before determining that developing their own program would be more cost-effective.
“While there were alternatives, oftentimes they are aimed more towards recreational skydiving,” said Beth Atkinson, senior research psychologist and Basic and Applied Training and Technology for the Learning and Evaluation Lab lead at NAWCTSD. “They had a lot of additional capabilities that aren’t necessary in our context, and because of those additional capabilities, their price tag is a significant amount as well.”
SoarTech, a software company that specializes in innovative artificial intelligence solutions, was awarded the contract to develop SkyFall. Since 2016, SoarTech has collaborated with the PDP Trainer Transition Team to make SkyFall aligned with training objectives.
There are multiple variables to overcome during a parachute descent. For instance, parachute lines can tangle, or the wind can change direction, so much of the aviator’s experience in this situation is uncontrollable. The aviator can affect many situations by controlling their harness and ejection equipment. SkyFall emulates this by displaying an open parachute on a screen above the student’s head and giving them two to three minutes to identify their specific ejection fault, then fix the issue by adjusting the harness that is strapped to the student during the training. Two large-screen monitors facing the student represent the virtual environment the student is descending into.
SkyFall will also be able to simulate environments, such as jungle, desert, sea, and urban environments, as well as adverse weather conditions. Miller said that being able to simulate different environments, and adverse conditions, is an important part of the training.
“With this new technology, we can change the wind speed. Because wind can play a huge factor in trying to avoid a dangerous situation on the ground. We want them to avoid the trees, we want them to avoid buildings, things like that. We’d all like to eject on a beautiful day, go straight down, but we know the reality is, it’s not going to be something like that,” Miller said.
The openness of the training space allows the student to move while they are suspended from the risers in a harness. The process of getting students into SkyFall replicates the aviation life support system to include risers and a harness. For safety and ease of connecting the student to the device, a ladder is used and allows students to efficiently conduct training. SkyFall also produces the student’s performance results automatically after the training ends for immediate feedback on their ability to achieve training objectives.
“Having that capability where the instructor can see exactly what the student is referencing at the same time, instead of having to go off of the student telling them what they’re seeing, and the instructor just having to take their word for it, just allows things to work better,” Miller said.
The system is durable, and the reinforced screens minimize damage during use and prevent the need for repair and replacement of parts. The system can even be turned off and on without needing to be reconfigured for every class.
SoarTech has had multiple SkyFall prototypes present at Navy and Marine Corps facilities at Pensacola, Lemoore, and Miramar for several years, and as a result has received a wealth of feedback from end users—both instructors and students—and other stakeholders. The company anticipates system delivery to training sites in early Fiscal Year 2024.
Jamie Anfenson-Comeau and Angie Robertson are communications specialists with Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division.