The technologically advanced equipment that provides the capability for modern warfare demands that people responsible for its maintenance are much more technology literate than any previous generation.
New high performance, fast jet, aircraft systems, such as EFA Typhoon and Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), are defined as half jet, half computer. The maintenance crews of these aircraft will be working with sophisticated computer systems unheard of with today’s legacy aircraft. This, by its very nature, redefines the required maintenance skills and offers new opportunities in the way knowledge is acquired.
Additionally, as the military strives to operate within ever tightening defence budgets, there is less likely to be money available to fund additional pieces of equipment for strictly training purposes. All equipment procured must be available for operations, and it is becoming increasingly common for maintenance technicians to only interact with and gain system knowledge when the new equipment is already in service.
To address these issues, the construct of the maintenance classroom is changing. Where students were primarily taught using text books, wiring diagrams and old or out of service physical equipment, today’s computer literate students utilise Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) computer-based training devices that provide a desktop ‘virtual system’ that looks, feels and reacts exactly like the real system.
Properly managed and modelled virtual maintenance training systems can recreate any complex system, to any level of detail. This is then dependent on a system creating a truly virtual free-play environment that allows the student to view and interact with the system in any way they want, and be confident that the consequences of their actions replicate precisely any interactions with the real equipment.
The real value of such a virtual free-play environment comes when an instructor has the ability to inject faults, the effects of which propagate through the equipment and result in symptoms which can be observed and then diagnosed by the student. This enables students to learn maintenance tasks such as fault isolation/detection, remove/replace procedures, operational/functional check, and maintenance task rehearsals.
This learning experience can be further enhanced by students’ ability to interface real or modelled equipment, such as test sets and prognostic systems, directly with the virtual system. This furthers the learning experience by allowing the maintenance technicians to learn how to operate the tools that they will go on to use in the operational role.
The main benefits of this approach over using real equipment can be summarised as:
1. Increased student throughput – The system is always available to the student. There is no requirement for the real system to be available, enabling maintenance procedures to be replicated many times on many single ‘virtual’ systems, such as high performance, fast jet aircraft.
2. Lower costs – providing real equipment requires a higher initial cost and incurs a high budget to support the in-service life span in terms of spares and repairs to frequently used equipment.
3. Safe training environment – students can not damage the equipment and can learn a job in a potentially harmful working environment without risk to themselves.
4. Ability to inject more realistic faults – Instructors can inject faults with ease and then immediately reset the system for the next task. The faults include diagnostic procedures that would be hard to replicate on real equipment without causing it serious damage.
5. Ability to aid instructor functionality – Instructors can monitor students as they undertake tasks; demonstrate particularly complex procedures for the students on their PC; record student performance and playback for debrief as well as evaluate and store student progress through an integrated learning management system.
6. Team Training Tasks – Many maintenance training tasks require maintenance technicians to work in teams. The virtual maintenance system allows students on individual computers to interact with each other and simultaneously undertake a team training task.
7. Multi-Configuration Scenarios – The majority of new military equipment now requires simultaneous training on a range of variants. An example of this is the JSF which comprises conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL), short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) and carrier suitable (CV) variants. Systems such as the JSF are also likely to be in service for at least the next 30 years and there will be a requirement to upgrade component systems of the aircraft as technology continues to advance. Using a virtual maintenance training system, the instructor is able to quickly reconfigure the training simulation to any number of concurrent operational builds.
The economic and operational benefits that virtual maintenance training systems can deliver are well proven. However, some – such as VEGA group – believes it is the extent to which these maintenance training systems are now deployed that will determine the level of improved performance in front line equipment.