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{Editor’s note: This article is authored by Scott Kozak, Executive Director of Military Business Development, NeuroTracker. In this piece, Kozak focused on the need to develop and train more pilots in the military.  Modern training programs like the USAF Pilot Training Next is answering the call. By implementing emerging commercially available technologies in combination with student centered learning, and deep data analysis, the results of training are more effective.} 

Pilot Training Next is a modern training initiative that synthesizes several novel and innovative approaches to training military personnel. In particular it combines emerging technologies, open collaborations with commercial companies, and student-centered learning through sophisticated performance data analysis. As such, it represents a fresh methodology to pilot training. Here we will cover why this approach can serve as a role model to military training generally.

The Challenge of Developing Airmanship

In recent years the United States Air Force (USAF) has been faced with a dramatic shortfall in the number of pilot graduations, with estimates suggesting a deficit of 2,000 pilots per year. Partly this is due to the high costs associated with training personnel in this highly skilled, high-value role.

Access to live flight time is a major logistical challenge, due to the high cost of aircraft and the strict safety requirements for trainee pilots. Access to full flight simulators is also prohibitive, with costs upward of $4.5 million per training station.

With such a pressing need for new pilots, especially fighter pilots, leaders in the USAF called out for ways to streamline the training pipeline and graduate more aviators each year. The result was the Pilot Training Next (PTN) program.

Attracting Emergent Technologies through Crowd-Sourcing

The USAF has been actively working on accelerating pilot training through the PTN initiative since February 2018. However, in October 2018, PTN launched the AFWERX Revolutionizing Pilot Training Open Challenge – a call to commercial companies with a background in aerospace, education, and technology to submit innovative training solutions. The challenge resulted in a substantial 150 project submissions, ranging from new ideas to highly-mature solutions aiming to facilitate pilot training.

Sixteen companies were selected as finalists to showcase their solutions, with five being awarded invitations to collaborate directly with PTN, along with funding to further develop and specialize their application to USAF needs. One of the technologies presented,  NeuroTracker, was selected based on its scientific validation of cognitive assessment and performance.

This crowd-sourcing method of acquiring novel techniques and technology has been a recent trend in only a few areas of the military. For PTN, it resulted in the acquisition of some truly cutting-edge training solutions and represents a very effective means for the rapid evolution of new training initiatives.

Accelerating Pilot Learning

The PTN program integrates a variety of technologies, including virtual and augmented reality, advanced biometrics, artificial intelligence, and data analytics to produce pilots in an accelerated, cost efficient and learning-focused training environment. The first PTN cohort started in August 2018, running a 24-week course for 20 undergraduate pilots. Four months after beginning the program, 13 of the students graduated successfully. Typically, USAF undergraduate pilot training takes an entire year.

Not only did this first phase demonstrate a high-degree of efficacy, it did so at a surprisingly low cost. This was partly due to the adoption of Head Mounted Display Virtual Reality training simulators. As these come at a tiny fraction of the cost of full simulators, all students were afforded constant access to simulator-based training.

The second iteration of PTN began in January 2019, with applicants being selected based on a battery of test results, including psychological, cognitive and intelligence tests. This phase has also become more advanced, with new training methodologies being evolved out of concepts learned from reviewing the first phase.

Student-Centric Training

In particular, PTN focused on the development of a student-centric learning paradigm for phase two. For example, using sophisticated performance analytics integrated with AI so the training environment can be tailored to the individual student. This allows the level of difficulty students face in different scenarios to be specifically customized to teach them more effectively, letting them work on overcoming performance weaknesses, rather than reinforcing strengths.

This approach exemplifies the command’s concepts of the “Continuum of Learning”, including blended learning and data-centric facets by using existing and emerging technologies that can decrease the time and cost of training without sacrificing the depth of learning. All knowledge gained is constantly used to refine scientific measuring capabilities and teaching techniques.

Unlike the traditional undergraduate Pilot Training model, PTN offered students the opportunity to learn in a collaborative learning environment in a learner-centric way. One feature of this is the autonomy for pilots to train on skills they need outside of standard training times. They can even choose to use simulators to train with co-students within a VR network.

Taking on the Cognitive Dimension of Performance

With the integration of a cognitive assessment and performance solution, PTN is now taking airmanship to the next level, by developing the minds of pilots at a neurocognitive level.

Pilot Training Next

NeuroTracker in action at PTN 2019

This training solution begins with assessing each pilot’s high-level cognitive capacities. It then quickly builds up these capacities, effectively preparing the brain for learning in order to maximize the benefits of each hour of flight training. Finally, it measures neuroplasticity and learning capacity over time – objective metrics that can be used to guide instructors in terms of how quickly training difficulty should be increased.

Although a cognitive assessment and performance  has already been established for training elite US and Canadian special-forces, PTN is taking a sophisticated scientific and data-integrated approach, with dedicated experts constantly reviewing its on-going use. Additionally, all the pilots have 24/7 access to VR simulators integrated with cognitive assessment and performance, as well as personal training stations in their rooms. For this reason, progress should come rapidly, and is expected to yield specialized applications of the technology within the broader training program.

Leading the Way in Military Training

Since its inception less than one year ago, PTN is progressing rapidly and looks ready to revolutionize the way the USAF graduates pilots, bringing accelerated training with massive cost savings. More importantly though, what is being learned by PTN should be largely transferable to other military training domains and career fields.

A particular advantage here is PTN’s open approach to sharing what is being learned, which included being featured in the Best Paper for Training at Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation, and Education Conference (I/ITSEC).  In 2019 we can expect to see some fascinating developments.

Post Author
Scott Kozak, MBA, is President of NeuroTracker. He is also the Corporate Liaison Officer at the Faubert Applied Research Centre (ARC), a non-profit research center dedicated to developing and validating new applications to address unmet needs in human cognition, learning and performance. ARC researchers collaborate with experts and key opinion leaders from renowned academic, government and industry organizations to validate evidenced-based applications of NeuroTracker technologies. Scott is also Deputy Chair of the National Defense Industry Association’s (NDIA) Human System Division and an Adjunct Professor at Brown University in the Executive Master of Healthcare Leadership degree program. He has held senior management positions in multinational corporations, start-ups and public-sector organizations.