Imagine that the engine rotations on an Abrams main battle tank experience a potentially critical malfunction while conducting a high risk-combat mission or that a fighter jet operates with electronic systems nearing a point of operational failure. How can a person identify these impediments or potential problems and quickly correct them?
Repair procedures, sustainment details and key parameters of what’s called condition-based maintenance all need to be carefully monitored with a vigilant eye to both ensure safe and effective functionality and reduce costs. Industry and the military services are increasingly looking to artificial-intelligence-enabled “augmented reality” technology to perform these critical functions to lower costs and massively streamline these essential functions.
“On average, 70 cents on the dollar over the life cycle of a program is spent on sustainment and operations,” said Stacy Cummings during a keynote address today before the 2021 Logistics Officer Association Symposium, according to a Pentagon report. “With this in mind, we must continue to emphasize the importance of designing for sustainment in order to reduce the demand for logistic support and maximize the availability of systems over their long life cycles.”
With computer-automated Augmented Reality technology, Fast-emerging technical details, needed repair data, sudden malfunction information and even anticipated points of failure can instantly be sent to and bounced off of, analyzed and compared against a vast, seemingly limitless database containing millions of factual details and relevant points of reference specific to a given problem. Much of this pertains to what can be described as efforts to operate through a cyber-hardened network enabled by advanced algorithms described as Industry 4.0.
Technological and operational problems can be solved, potential solutions can be quickly identified, optimal options or courses of responsive action can be determined and recommended, near real-time analytics can take place and otherwise disparate pools of pertinent data can be gathered, organized and integrated. These things enable human decisionmakers to take immediate corrective action regarding a particular maintenance, sustainment or operational issue related to a platform or technology.
Such are the benefits of emerging artificial intelligence and the “internet of things” empowered Industry 4.0, a fast-evolving technical process able to exponentially expedite and streamline repair, sustainment and training processes for military platforms. These attributes are fundamental to ongoing industry efforts to develop and introduce augmented-reality-centric technologies for the Defense Department to consider. One such effort is called VirtualWorx, a developmental effort from Raytheon Missiles and Defense aimed at accomplishing this through developmental augmented reality technology.
Raytheon developers explain how engineers have cyber-hardened the network and operate with goggles to apprehend key maintenance data.
“When the engineer looks at their screen, and it’s almost like a video game,” John Bergeron, the vice president of product support at Raytheon Missiles & Defense, said in an interview. “In a first-person view, you see what the person wearing the goggles is seeing. If you are doing maintenance and have to remove a series of bolts in a particular order, lines can be physically drawn on the screen that can be seen in the googles.”
“VirtualWorx can conduct live remote inspections in partnership with their military customers, enabling engineers from multiple sites to collaborate on the same problem without the cost and the delay of travel,” a Raytheon report states.
VirtualWorx is currently in service on various key systems such as the Patriot missile and a counter-drone radar system known as KuRFS. It can monitor technological performance and intervene as necessary. The technology is also being developed for an advanced Raytheon radar referred to as LTAMDs, or Lower Tier Air and Missile Defense Radar.
A key element of the developmental trajectory for VirtualWorx, Raytheon developers explain, is alignment with the Pentagon’s wish to build in sustainment and maintenance requirements early in the technical maturation process.
“Sustainment requirements must be ‘baked into’ the design of a material solution in order to deliver long-term operational availability and better support warfighters,” Cummings said.
Part of the intent of VirtualWorx is to greatly streamline the repair process by enabling adjustments to be made remotely at the point of need by on-site inspectors and engineers able to collaborate virtually with those not on site. This procedure also reduces the travel, logistical and cost burdens otherwise associated with the repair process. Most of all, it can massively expedite and speed up the timeframe and technical accuracy needed to ensure safe and operationally effective combat operations.
“For about six years now, the VirtualWorx team has been finding creative ways to use the technology both within the company and with customers. It is a tool, an enabler and a problem solver—especially in today’s complex environment,” said Bergeron.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.