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Sailors test VR technology at the iLab, where they have the opportunity to make their ideas for innovation into reality. (Navy photos)

Sailors test VR technology at the iLab, where they have the opportunity to make their ideas for innovation into reality. (Courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

Like any other organization, the Navy is not perfect. Many times sailors ask why things must be done a certain way. Often, they’re convinced they know a more effective way. Sometimes, they’re right. The Innovation Lab, better known as the iLab, gives sailors a chance to take those ideas and possibly turn them into reality.

“We believe that [for] many of problems that sailors are experiencing right now, there are solutions,” said Lt. Cmdr. Chris Keithley, iLab’s military advisor. “Unfortunately, they’re nascent inside of the Sailors’ heads, and getting to the point of actually developing a prototype and testing that idea is rather difficult. What we do here is try to take in these ideas, show it to our staff here at [Submarine Force Pacific], and propose how we can proceed forward with it.”

Established in 2016, the iLab is located at the Naval Submarine Training Center Pacific. Although the room is small in size, it’s jam-packed with the latest virtual and augmented reality technology. The iLab team also offers tours in hopes of inspiring Sailors to come up with and share ideas to improve the fleet.

“We offer tours to sailors. We’ve had foreign navies come through and tour the iLab. It’s a good chance to take a tour that is more exciting than a typical tour; where you actually get to play with some things that aren’t commercially available and see some of the cutting edge stuff that you may not see in the fleet for a few years.” — Keithley

Featured technology at the iLab include: a virtual map for the undersea environment; a 3D display that allows users to use a special pen to practice maintenance on equipment used on ships; and a system that virtually places users in aircraft, ships, or submarines using holographs.

“We’ve had about 550 sailors through the iLab in its first nine months of operations,” said Chris Bretz, iLab’s team lead. “We got about 70 or 80 ideas, [and] the staff has reviewed and picked half a dozen to focus on and build out as prototypes. The mission of the lab is exactly that; capture ideas from the Sailors [to fix] their problems that they see in ship’s operations, training and maintenance, and apply cutting-edge technology to make it better, faster, cheaper and more effective.”

One prototype that is being tested is an unmanned aerial vehicle can track Sailors who accidentally fall into the ocean while out to sea.

That technology is the unmanned aerial vehicle, commonly referred to as UAV, which Keithley wants to utilize to save Sailors’ lives during man overboard drills.

As a submarine officer, Keithley is aware of the challenges when a Sailor goes overboard. The entire ship is called into action to ensure the missing sailor is identified and found before too much time has passed. Keithley himself has performed numerous man overboard drills. His idea came to him when he was learning about UAV technology and the many things it can do.

“It can be very difficult to find low profile objects from a submarine, especially when you’re using your own eye balls to cue in and find the guy and drive your ship toward him,” said Keithley. “The idea came out of that. Why don’t we have a UAV that could launch, go find the guy and automatically keep over him and provide visual cuing so the boat can drive toward that UAV?”

The technology already existed in bits and pieces, he concluded. It’s only a matter of time before it is implemented out in the fleet as an efficient and cost-effective way to not only save lives, but also to make shipboard life easier and more efficient.

The next step was turning his idea into reality. He took an active part in testing how a hypothetical man overboard rescue could go if assisted by a UAV, for example.

“I actually got in the water in Hawaii and swam out, and they flew a UAV over me to see what it would look like,” he said.

The personnel at the iLab have high hopes of implementing this and other ideas developed into the fleet, and see value in using augmented and virtual reality for training purposes.

“Money, overall, is tight,” said Bretz. “Augmented reality [and] virtual reality offer an alternative, or at least a compliment to brick and mortar training. Building a $5 million dollar building may have been possible in the past but it’s not today. With augmented reality [and] virtual reality solutions for training delivery, you can have 20, 50, [or] 100 Sailors [train] for no more money. Instead of having the Sailors come to the facility to do the training, it can be taken to the sailors at their locations.”

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