Spark Tank competition generates new virtual reality training opportunity for Air Force welders

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The Air Force is preparing to buy a virtual reality tool that simulates training scenarios specifically aimed at cultivating its welding talent. 

Military units have been increasingly acquiring and deploying VR capabilities to supplement and advance real-world education options for their personnel in recent years. But what’s unique about this latest VR-centered request for quotations from the 92nd Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild Air Force base is that it blossomed out of a winning idea from one of the branch’s innovation-focused Spark Tank contests.

“The Virtual Welder Trainer requirement is a result of winning the Inland Spark Tank Competition, which is the competition at the installation level,” Contracting Officer Paul Blais and Contract Specialist, Commodities and Services Flight Staff Sgt. Carlos Melendez, both with the 92nd Contracting Squadron, told FedScoop in an emailed statement. “Because of the entry of this idea into the Spark Tank competition, it was one of the winners to receive the funding from Spark Tank for the purchase of a system.”

One branch of extended reality emerging technologies, VR immerses users into seemingly real, but computer-generated, environments via wearables that are usually headsets. As their computing infrastructure evolves and advances to allow for it, the military and government are investing in applications associated with medicine, education, suicide prevention and more.

Meant specifically for classroom training, the capability the Air Force is eyeing is what Blais and Melendez deemed to be “a highly realistic, multi-process” welding simulator. 

“For beginner to advanced-level weld students, the virtual welding system simulates multiple welding processes, blending real world and computer-generated images into a unique, virtual reality environment,” they wrote in the email. “This technology will allow the welders to train without utilizing real world resources, saving the Air Force a ton of money!”

According to a document attached to the VR welder solicitation, officials want a physical tool and digital program that leans on open-source code for system updates and teacher software. The training instrument also needs to come with a VR welding helmet with oversized adjustable straps, a work stand, and torch, among other features.

This year’s Inland Northwest Spark Tank Competition was hosted in February — this time by the brand new Fairchild Innovation Cell within the base. Such cells are being established across the nation by the branch and are essentially designed to enable new opportunities around collaboration and innovation.

The annual contest is meant to drive airmen and women to think of and execute novel ideas to benefit the force. Some of the other top performers in the 2022 competition included a stress vest, an integrated tech platform, and an engine preservation kit.

While Pentagon components at times struggle with transitioning innovative technologies from concept to wide use by military personnel, this solicitation demonstrates how competitions like Spark Tank hold some promise to bridge that gap.

“The Inland Spark Tank competition can lead to new purchases when the Airmen of Fairchild AFB have innovative ideas that can help better the Air Force,” Blais and Melendez wrote to FedScoop.

Responses to the RFQ are due May 10.

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Air Force Spark Tank, Innovation, Virtual reality
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