WASHINGTON — For the first time ever, a U.S. Air Force T-38 will be outfitted with an augmented reality training system that allows it to dogfight against simulated Russian and Chinese fighters projected inside the pilot’s helmet.
The Air Force awarded Florida-based tech firm Red 6 a contract worth up to $70 million over its five-year period of performance, the company announced Monday morning.
During that time, Red 6 will integrate its Airborne Tactical Augmented Reality System with the Northrop T-38 Talon used to train fighter pilots, followed by the integration of ATARS onboard a fourth-generation jet such as the F-16.
A T-38 equipped with the ATARS system could be ready to begin flight tests anywhere from six to 12 months from now, Red 6 CEO Daniel Robinson said in an exclusive interview with Defense News.
“It’s a big, bold vision, but I think that big, bold vision is really fast becoming a reality,” Robinson said. “I think over the next 12 months, you’re going to see something that no one can deny is absolutely transformational.”
The ATARS system comprises a custom, full-color augmented reality headset designed to be worn with a standard HGU-55 helmet used by F-15 and F-16 pilots.
While everything a user sees in a virtual reality environment is simulated, augmented reality blends virtual simulations — in this case, realistic imagery of enemy aircraft — with the landscape a pilot is actually looking at outside the cockpit.
The company has its first meeting with Air Force stakeholders on Monday afternoon to begin to understand the technical requirements to integrate an augmented reality system with the T-38, Robinson said.
“We’ve got a really cool technological solution, but we’re putting it into airplanes with real pilots in there, and there’s always a tremendous amount of safety implications around that,” he said. “At the forefront of our mind [is], how do we do this to make sure the system is completely safe and able to withstand the rigors of military flight.”
Once Red 6 has integrated the ATARS with a single T-38, the company hopes to integrate a “multiplayer” version of the system where multiple aircraft see the same virtual adversaries and can work together to defeat them, Robinson said.
“Can I take a wingman up, and can we share and interact in a game space in the sky, and experience a game that makes sense to both of us?” he said. “That’s how we’re thinking about it in terms of logical steps forward.”
Although Red 6 is a relative newcomer to the world of military procurement, the company has garnered the interest of Air Force leaders and defense contractors.
Its board is led by Mike Holmes, the former four-star general who led Air Combat Command, and includes members such as Will Roper, the service’s top acquisition official during the Trump administration. Lockheed Martin’s venture capital arm also provided an investment of undisclosed value in June 2020.
Red 6′s latest contract is a Small Business Innovation Research Phase III contract. The Air Force’s AFWERX innovation hub previously awarded the company SBIR Phase I and II contracts.
“Innovation within training is needed now more than ever to remain competitive with our adversaries,” Winston Bennett, of the Air Force’s Airman Systems Directorate, said in a statement. “Red 6 is delivering a solution to current pain points in training, that if fixed, could solve several national security issues we face today.”
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.