Group Editor Marty Kauchak highlights developments in mobile technology devices for vehicle maintenance training.

A walkabout of the exhibition floor at the 2012 I/ITSEC and other recent industry trade conferences once again highlighted the continued, rapid growth and evolution of the mobile learning devices sector.

A cascading array of handheld portable devices including smartphones, PDAs, tablets and other equipment have the potential to provide service men and service women with the opportunity to learn and/or refresh their skills anytime, anywhere. While industry is providing increasingly capable mobile learning products, there is the stark reality that service requirements determine if and when this technology is integrated into DoD courses.

While the Pentagon is eyeing mobile learning competencies to support the operation and maintenance of its huge inventory of weapons platforms and weapons systems throughout the services, we’re limiting our focus in this article to developments in ground vehicle maintenance training.

Industry Efforts

This author has seen a number of trends and developments in maintenance training for almost two decades. In that time military maintainers have received increasingly capable virtual training devices as part of a blended solution – mixing live, hands-on training with a dose of technology – when required by the service.

DiSTI is among the S&T companies which have pushed the envelope in this sector with maintenance trainers, procedures trainers, full systems trainers and other devices for military units in the US and overseas – with its eye currently on advancing mobile training applications.

Scott Ariotti, the company’s director of global marketing, noted that as mobile applications for training are gaining more and more interest every day, there is one significant trend – “the tablets are taking over.” The Orlando-based executive further predicted that as laptops disrupted the desktop market in the past 10 years, “tablets will disrupt the laptop market in the same way as their capabilities grow over the next 10 year.”

DiSTI got out in front of this development when the first-generation Apple iPad hit the market in 2010. The company’s GL Studio ES (Embedded Systems) product was developed to work with the graphics processing of these new portable systems. Ariotti and his colleagues immediately began experimenting with what was possible. “We ported one of our engine trainers to run on the iPad and Android tablets as a proof of concept to see how well it would work. The results were amazing,” he recalled.

Last July DiSTI posted the engine trainer to the App Store (under the name Virtual Engine) to test the waters of how well it would be received and get feedback.  “We are averaging 500(+) downloads a week and there has been one trend in the comments: ‘Give us more’”, Ariotti said.

At the 2012 I/ITSEC, DiSTI unveiled the Lumen Runtime Engine for GL Studio. This new runtime architecture for GL Studio was developed specifically to handle all of the new hardware and operating system capabilities introduced by the growth in mobile devices. Ariotti described the significance of Lumen. “As we move forward the Lumen runtime will trivialize moving training application content between desktops, laptops, iPads, and Android tablets.”

Josie Sutcliffe, the vice president of marketing at NGRAIN, described her company’s progress in this sector. In one instance the US Army used Stryker Battle Damage Assessment and Repair (BDAR) courseware consisting of NGRAIN interactive 3-D simulations to close a critical training gap identified in the field. The solution was used at Camp Victory, Iraq, allowing soldiers to learn and practice important BDAR procedures in a scenario-based simulated environment. Sutcliffe said her company “expects that similar proven NGRAIN solutions will be re-purposed for use on mobile devices in the near future.”

Sutcliffe also discussed her company’s other efforts to get out in front of the military’s rapidly evolving and rigorous logistic life cycle and IT requirements.

In one instance NGRAIN’s new augmented reality capability permits maintainers to perform tasks viewing a piece of live equipment through the “window” of an Apple tablet that displays 2-D/3-D graphical overlays, video and text augmentations. Sutcliffe noted the technology can be used to give vehicle maintainers immediate access to system parts information, repair history, and critical system functions, such as fluid flows. “They can also receive guidance about remove and install procedures through animations and interactive task steps, which enhance on-the-job training,” she said.

Through another significant effort, NGRAIN’s cloud computing solution allows multiple users on a range of devices to interact at the same time with the same 3-D simulation. “We see a future where a soldier on the front lines can troubleshoot a maintenance problem using whichever device they have at the ready – be it an iPad or Android tablet – and interact with an expert in real time on the other side of the world through the same 3-D knowledge object,” Sutcliffe said, and continued, “When it comes to enhancing maintenance training and support, cloud computing will be a tremendous enabler.”

NGRAIN is also seeking flexibility in its cloud computing solutions. As a result, its software is not tied to one specific cloud computing platform so it can produce outputs that are compatible with the cloud computing solution of choice for its customers.

No Requirement in One Service

Against the backdrop of these representative developments, the military customer, at the end of the day, must establish the requirement for mobile technology, and fund the integration of these products into training systems for vehicle maintenance programs.

In one instance, Army Lieutenant Colonel Mark Evans, the PEO STRI product manager for ground combat tactical trainers, told MS&T, “Currently there is no requirement for mobile training technology for ground vehicle maintenance personnel.” While this technology enabler does not support vehicle maintenance learning content, the Army uses other training devices to train aspiring and qualified maintainers.

The Army has computer-based training in its virtual environment interactive-specific classrooms aligned with specific combat vehicles, including M1 Tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Multiple Launch Rocket System and High Mobility Artillery Rocket System Launchers, and the Stryker Family of Vehicles. The service also has full size simulators for these vehicles. “These simulators train specific maintenance related and 'remove and replace' tasks to soldiers. Each of the vehicles listed has an Interactive Electronic Technical Manual (IETM) which is authored by the equipment’s Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) and managed by the system's product manager shop. These IETMs are loaded on a notebook computer like piece of equipment called a Maintenance Support Device and is available within fielded units,” Evans said.

Other services’ representatives declined to speak with MS&T about this or any other S&T requirement. The spokespersons pointed out ongoing actions to implement newly directed sequestration funding reductions, uncertainties about the fiscal year 2014 budget request and other developments, precluded their discussions.

Beyond the military services, one major supplier of maintenance training to military units around the globe also is eyeing an expanded use of the virtual training domain for its customers.

Oshkosh Defense, as an OEM, delivers training as part of the life cycle support package for vehicle contracts with military customers in the US and many regions of the world. In that capacity, the company takes training to the military service, providing expert-level training to vehicle operators and mechanics on all Oshkosh vehicles and technologies. Oshkosh’s reputation as an industry training provider has been bolstered by training thousands of personnel in-theater, at customer locations throughout the US and other parts of the world, or at the Oshkosh Product Training Center.

While Oshkosh frequently tailors its course curricula to focus on the customer’s specific needs, the company  recommends a blended approach to training that includes virtual task trainers, in-classroom and hands-on training. “This allows us to deliver highly-effective training to large groups at a low cost,” Jeff Koga, the company’s associate vice president, for integrated product support, said.

Koga cited one of Oshkosh’s recent successes with using virtual training in its courses. Conducting Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck Tanker (HEMTT) fueling and de-fueling training tasks on the live equipment presents safety issues, and can be expensive and time consuming. “Oshkosh has developed a cutting edge virtual training solution for the HEMTT Tanker that improves trainee confidence, cuts training time and cost, and reduces wear and tear on customer equipment,” he said and added, “Oshkosh’s blended offering of virtual and real-world training is the first of its kind for the U.S. military’s tactical wheeled vehicle fleet.”

Oshkosh believes in the potential of the virtual training domain in its programs, and is looking to take a portion of the information that’s currently being taught in the classroom and moving it out on to the shop floor. “The virtual task trainer is a great way to do that. We put instructional videos onto a laptop and bring that same laptop from the classroom alongside the trucks,” Koga said. Indeed, Oshkosh is currently analyzing all company vehicle maintenance tasks to determine which tasks fit the media profile for making more training available on smartphones and tablets so they are more readily available.

Koga also imparted some suggestions for the second- and third-tier companies which may furnish Oshkosh with future learning technologies for its global courses. “The success of mobile training will be very reliant on a learning management system. With this system, customers can access training via their phone or tablet anywhere in the world. In the near future, customers could complete the classroom portion of a training track such as the overview of the product training ahead of time via video and/or e-learning modules. The student could then focus more hands-on training time to troubleshooting and repair procedures of specific systems in a training shop environment,” he pointed out. This effort could narrow a comprehensive vehicle training course from weeks to days, he suggested.  “The right blend of solutions for each customer training can differ, and Oshkosh is continually working to save customers time and money by using a learning management solution to its fullest capabilities.”

Other Innovation

In one near-term development, DiSTI is working on a major update to the Virtual Engine App which was expected to be released as this issue was published.

“Enhancements on the Virtual Engine App will include the ability to make In App purchases to enable new engines and lessons,” Ariotti said.

DiSTI is also planning on an Android release of the App. “Think about it. For certain types of training (obviously nothing with classified or ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) restricted data) the warfighter could just log into the Apple App Store or Google Apps Marketplace, and purchase their training materials for the price of a decent lunch,” Ariotti concluded.

Embedded training was one of the earliest forms of “mobile training” within the military vehicle – important for tasks the maintainer does not perform frequently. Oshkosh’s Koga indicated this training concept remains important to his company. “We are integrating Technical Video Instructions into our training, manufacturing and maintenance operations process at the Oshkosh Product Training Center to improve task comprehension, build in quality of learning and increase understanding of tasks after first pass.”