Air Force Turns to Virtual Reality for Suicide and Sexual Assault Training

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Service members are also using the emerging technology for technical education purposes.

Texas-based Air Force officials and their spouses are being immersed in simulations of difficult sexual assault and suicide scenarios—via virtual reality—to become better equipped to deal with such encounters in their real-world military operations.

A new training program designed to support staff was recently implemented by members of the 317th Maintenance Group at Dyess Air Force Base, marking the latest of multiple virtual reality-driven applications being deployed there.

“Our Virtual Reality Training Center has become the gold-standard that the Integrated Technology Platform shares with every base to emulate,” Staff Sgt. Christopher Clinton, who helps steer the VRTC, told Nextgov in an email on Monday.

Virtual reality typically incorporates headsets that present computer-generated environments with simulated objects that look to be real and adapt as wearers engage. The military and federal agencies have tapped this technology for learning-centered and other mission-oriented purposes in recent years. Through the Integrated Technology Platform Initiative Clinton mentioned, the Air Force is collaborating with relevant players to develop and roll out a competency-based plan and environment that leans on virtual reality and other emerging technologies. 

For the VR-centered scenarios in the sexual assault and suicide trainings at Dyess, Air Force officials learn and practice new language and communications skills by engaging with characters in the experience who are impacted by their words. The ultimate objective is to help staff to become more hyperaware of warning signs and strengthen their abilities to ask tough questions in dangerous situations while maintaining composure.

“I feel like this training is important because PowerPoints aren’t always the greatest way going forward,” Staff Sgt. Tyler Hicks, the 317th Maintenance Group innovation team chief, explained. “We are hoping that this training makes people want to be more comfortable if and when they are engaged in a real-life scenario.”

A press announcement on the effort confirmed that Air Force leaders on the base can request a commander’s toolkit that will usher participants through the training—and also pinpoint where their units lack and might need to concentrate on any additional training. “With more than 1,000 personnel participating in virtual reality training, there has been a [170%] increase in very prepared responses, a [160%] increase in very confident responses and a 40 percent increase in the likelihood to intervene with a person who is dealing with a crisis,” the release noted.

Clinton added that this is just one of multiple VR-enabled training opportunities unfolding inside Dyess’ VRTC.

Generally, the learning options involve following technical orders step-by-step to complete full tasks. For example, Air Force asset maintainers can perform a full Crew Chief Preflight Inspection task from start to finish all using only VR. 

“They will see an aircraft in front of them. They can move around in the environment to interact with switches and perform zonal inspections. A Zonal Inspection of the flight deck will highlight the entire area for students/maintainers to ensure everything is in place,” Clinton explained. “They could also inspect fuel balance or manually verify circuit breakers are closed.”

This training is all supplemental, for now. Those involved must go out to a live aircraft following any VR training and perform the same activities hands-on. 

“We have seen that students with VR supplemented perform tasks much quicker and more proficient than our standard training control groups,” Clinton said. “With our Return on Investment we have seen a 45% reduction in downtime for training aircraft at Dyess, increased student retention rate of 35%, and reduced classroom hours by 60%—returning 720 monthly manpower hours back to the flight line.”

He further confirmed that his team from the base has “shared how to build a VRTC with 45 bases and 54 units which includes all 9 [major commands], as well as shared how we teach and use this immersive training.”

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