Real Planes, Virtual Adversaries In Red 6 AR

Charlie Fink
6 min readNov 12, 2022

When I first spoke to Daniel Robinson three years ago, in the fall of 2019, he and his co-founder Glenn Snyder had just gotten their first development grant from AFWERX, the US Air Force technology incubator, to create an AR system capable of creating virtual adversaries enabling fighter pilots in real planes, outside, up in the sky, to practice dogfighting and other maneuvers.

Dan Robinson in front of his Berkut. Photo: Red 6

A former English Tornado pilot and instructor, Robinson knew firsthand the friction and expense of mock dogfights. As we concluded our first interview, he invited me to take a flight to check it out in person. I laughed it off, telling him I turned green after playing “Echo Arena” in VR for fifteen minutes.

Even my wife thought I was too quick to demur. This is a life experience, she said, you’re never going to get another chance. You love flying, you love AR, how could you say no? Next time I saw Dan at a conference in the spring of 2021, I told him I was ready. Eighteen months later, I rolled up to the hanger Red 6 occupies at the Santa Monica airport.

A lot has happened since Daniel Robinson and I first spoke. Having surpassed their own and the USAF’s expectations, the company raised $30M, and got a contract potentially worth $70 M from the USAF. Most recently, Red 6 announced a strategic partnership with Boeing to integrate this technology into the new T7 fighter trainer aircraft and the F-15EX. Red 6 now has over 83 employees across three locations including Santa Monica, Denver and their headquarters, which is now in Orlando.

YOLO. Photo: Charlie Fink

The first thing I saw when I arrived was the company’s two Berkut 540 carbon fiber kit planes. They look badass, with a 330 hp engine and a rear propeller behind the cockpit that drives the little plane as fast as 300 MPH. The rear prop means pilots get the kind of unobstructed forward view they see from a fighter cockpit.

An email suggested not eating lunch before our flight so I obliged. When I got there I struggled into the one size too small flight suit they gave me, and had the IPD in the helmet set for accurate head tracking during the simulation. An acquaintance with the same technology beat, Jennifer Strong of the MIT Technology Review, was also there in an identical flight suit. She was preparing to record her experience for her podcast and was set to go up after me.

Red6 virtual wing man as seen through its augmented reality helmet. Note details like the tail lettering and hot exhaust. Photo: Red 6

We were introduced to Red 6’s test pilots, Rebel, a USAF combat flight trainer, and T-Mac, a retired Marine pilot. They assured us that hardly anyone gets sick. Maybe one out of twenty people. They even encouraged us to hydrate and eat some snacks. Rebel gave us our briefing, explaining we’d be practicing formation flying with virtual wingman, in-flight refueling, carrier landings, dog fights, and evasion of Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs).

Simulated carrier landing at 5,000 feet. Photo: Red 6

Practicing these maneuvers is difficult, dangerous, and very, very expensive. You can see why the military is so hot for this technology. According to Robinson, this is the first real change to pilot combat training in 100 years. In addition to the simulations, pilots can network with other real planes in the same simulation, and it’s all recorded for debrief afterwards.

Preflight check. Rebel’s up front. Photo: Charlie Fink

After I shimmied into the cockpit a crew member helped me put on my helmet. Inside of the main visor, which slides up and down like the ones in the movies, is another see-through screen with Red 6’s custom optics. This made the helmet a bit front weighted and I struggled to keep the interior AR glass off my nose while keeping the Red 6’s AR in my field of view.

In the back seat, ready to fly. Photo: Charlie Fink

Rebel and I chatted as we made our way over the Santa Monica mountains into the air over Camarillo, 50 miles north of LA. He moved his wife and three young children to LA to get in on the ground floor of Red 6, risking his distinguished military career. Rebel, the USAF combat flight instructor, really believes in this.

Air-to-air refueling, made possible with Red6 AR. Photo: Red 6

It was a beautiful day for flying, unlimited visibility, no clouds, and a minimum of air traffic going in and out of Camarillo regional airport a mile below us. Now it was game on. With a flip of a switch a life size KC-46 tanker was flying above us, in close formation was an F-22 Raptor. I was able to observe the air-air-refueling mission with remarkable detail. As the aircraft flew around the sky, they even cast shadows on each other as the relative position of the sun changed.

Simulated ground attack. Photo: Red 6

In the end, it was the SAMs that got me. One of the ways pilots evade them is to dive while doing a barrel roll. When we pulled out of the dive, I was grabbing for the one gallon ziploc bag with my too heavy hands. The trail mix and water they fed me came out faster than it went in. I felt much better but my flight suit was a mess, as was the microphone cover. Rebel said not to apologize. 19 out of 20 people get sick.

Berkut 540 in flight over Camarillo. Photo: Charlie Fink

We took the beautiful coastal route back to the airport at about 1000 feet over the ocean. Rebel said they often see the outlines of whales and dolphins in the water below. He told me Red 6 was responsible for about half the flights out of that tiny airport most days. The ground crew was waiting with a plastic bag for the flight suit as we rolled in.

Jen gave me a thumbs up as T-Mack taxiied their Berkut toward the runway. I reached out later to find out how her flight went. “It’s going to be a great show after I cut the vomit… I loved the flying part,” she responded. Jennifer, too, struggled with the weight of the helmet. They told her fighter pilots build up their necks to carry the extra weight of the helmet more easily.

This incredible AR use case is no-brainer, not just similar training applications for helicopters, tanks, and other vehicles, but also for auto racing, tennis and other sports. Disney sees the entertainment potential in Red 6 technology, and included the company in the current cohort of its prestigious accelerator program.

Microsoft could save its $22 B military AR contract by buying Red 6 right now. It won’t be easy to elbow Lockheed and Boeing out of the way. Red 6 solves a multibillion dollar problem for their customers.

Originally posted on Forbes Nov. 7th, 2022.

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Charlie Fink

Consultant, Columnist, Author, Adjunct, Covering AI, XR, Metaverse for Forbes