3-D'Virtual Task Trainers'

Imagine that you’ve been told to repair a T56 engine on a Lockheed Martin 130 Hercules.

Rather than having to pull out the manuals, however, you simply grab a ruggedized laptop or PDA loaded with virtual task training software. It provides hyper-realistic three-dimensional images of the T56 engine at a level of detail that puts computer game graphics to shame.

That’s not all: these 3-D images, called ‘knowledge objects,’ are interactive. Click on a given subsystem and you get new images showing you what’s inside. This virtual training software also offers animations explaining how to disassemble and reassemble the systems before you. It even lets you ‘rehearse’ doing so in cyberspace, without needing to lift an actual tool.

You don’t have to imagine this product anymore — it exists.

The 3-D software developer NGRAIN (www.ngrain.com) and the MRO company StandardAero (www.standardaero.com) have created such a laptop/PDA-based virtual task trainer, known as an Advanced Interactive Electronic Technical Manual (A/IETM), for the Hercules T56 engine.

“To our knowledge, this is the most detailed 3-D model of an engine ever created,” says Jim Henry, StandardAero’s vice president of technology development.

NGRAIN and StandardAero developed the program for the Canadian Forces (CF) to help maintain their C130 Hercules aircraft in theaters such as Afghanistan.

“The T-56 A/IETM from NGRAIN and StandardAero can help the Canadian Forces deliver more productive operational support to the ‘video gamer’ generation,” notes the CF’s Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Cooke. “We can now potentially assess and adapt how subject matter is covered and supported to fit new requirements in the field.”

The A/IETM concept is a radical departure from older technician training methods. Fundamentally, this concept frees technicians from leafing through paper manuals, trying to pick out the information they need from reams of print. Instead, they can see the systems they are working on in an accurate and easily understandable 3-D perspective. Given just how visually oriented actual aircraft maintenance is, the A/IETM is a far more appropriate training tool than what has gone before.

“The T56 A/IETM really lets you interact with the T56 engine in cyberspace,” says Gabe Batstone, NGRAIN’s vice president of business development. “For instance, you can drill down through the outer parts of the engine to see the components inside, and then click around to find out what they are and how they work together. Double click on one of the engine subsystems, and you get a new 3-D model that allows you to drill down further still.”

This said, the T56 A/IETM’s value lies in its ability to show, in real-time, how specific systems are serviced and reassembled. This provides many benefits.

First, it gives the technician a visual education in what is fundamentally a visual task. “Before a new tech goes out to do an operation, they see a virtual demonstration in 30-60 seconds, to see how the job is done,” says Henry. “They know what to do before they have to actually do it.”

Second, the T56 A/IETM lets the technician rehearse the required procedure on a laptop or PDA without loosening a single screw. Not only does this increase familiarity with the task at hand, but it also gives the technician the chance to make mistakes without consequences.

Third, the T56 A/IETM saves time rummaging around the parts and tools rooms. “Currently, someone about to work on a T56 engine would have to go through the parts manual to find the parts needed and to get a sense of tools required,” Henry says. “With the NGRAIN T56 A/IETM, the software details what parts and tools are required to do the job right on the screen, so you know what to take with you before you go to the aircraft.”

Finally, the T56 A/IETM accompanies the technician onto the flight line, ensuring that they have access to relevant information while they work on the actual engine. Should they need to review the procedure and look up further details that they’ve discovered while doing the job, the data is right at hand.

Military projects
Finding training personnel is a serious challenge for civilian MROs. The problem is even worse in military organizations such as the CF. Since highly trained technicians are able to get better pay in the corporate world, military organizations constantly find themselves hunting for new talent to take their place. This leads to more trouble. “It can take up to two years to train a new technician before they are ready to go out on the flight line to do apprentice work,” says Henry.

This is why the Canadian Forces, led by Colonel Cooke, asked NGRAIN and StandardAero to develop the T56 A/IETM. The Canadian military’s goal is to speed up the training of new technicians without sacrificing quality on the flight line.

“The Canadian Forces performed a trial comparing how long it took novice technicians to learn via traditional manuals, versus 3-D models,” says Henry. “The group that was trained using the models learned to do the repair significantly faster than the manual-trained techs, and showed much higher knowledge.”

Typically, an A/IETM can help MRO trainees learn what they need to do up to 30 percent more quickly than book learning, Batstone notes. They can then take that training data with them when they go to do the work.

This is just the first stage of the Canadian Forces’ evaluation of the T56 A/IETM. At press time, it was rolling out a field comparison of the two methods at the CF air base in Trenton, Ontario.

NGRAIN has already developed other A/IETMs for the CF, such as a C130 propeller virtual trainer for the Canadian Forces School of Aerospace Technology and Engineering (CFSATE). The results are promising. Based on CFSATE’s own research, students using the A/IETM-based trainer qualified up to 60 percent faster than those using traditional book-based methods. Other CF-driven virtual task trainers include A/IETMs focused on 3-D landmine simulations, a Griffon helicopter virtual task trainer, and a MK-46 computer-based torpedo virtual task trainer.

NGRAIN has also developed a 3-D Stryker Battle Damage Assessment and Repair A/IETM for the U.S. Army, and a Weapons Virtual Task Trainer for the U.S. National Guard.

Clearly, an A/IETM virtual task trainer is an effective, efficient tool for bringing technicians up to speed fast. When will this technology be offered to the civilian MRO market?

“The technology to do this is readily available today,” says Henry. “Someone just has to do the programming.”