February 21, 2022

Red 6 aims to use augmented reality and A.I. to train U.S. military pilots

A close up of a plant

Dan Robinson, a soft-spoken native of northeast England, chats in a Miami Beach coffee house, his dog at his feet. Meanwhile in California, representatives of the U.S. Air Force test a video game-like technology his company is developing to answer America’s military pilot predicament.

The nation is short of pilots — by about 2,000 for the Air Force in recent years. It misses the mark in readiness. Training is expensive. “Accelerate change or lose,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. said in 2020 directive to the service.

Robinson echoes Brown’s thoughts. “Whilst we’ve been involved in fighting the war on terror, China and Russia went to school on how to defeat the United States in high-intensity war fighting,” he says over tea. “If we don’t change, if we don’t do something about it, we’re going to lose. I started Red 6 to really do my part to solve what I think is a national security crisis.”

Robinson, 45, says his company can drastically reduce the cost of training while increasing the number of pilots and their readiness by using augmented reality and artificial intelligence: Think Pokemon GO meets Fortnite — but with the future of America on the line.

As a youth, Robinson earned money for flying lessons by rising before dawn to deliver milk. He had his pilot’s license at 15 — inspired, he says, by Superman, TopGun and Star Wars. He later joined the Royal Air Force. After graduating from Britain’s equivalent of the TopGun fighter school, he was chosen in 2005 to go to the United States to fly the then-new F-22 Raptor stealth fighter. He became the first non-American to fly the F-22 and spent three years as an F-22 instructor at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

“I fell in love with the United States,” he says. He earned an MBA at Georgetown and worked in finance for a year in New York. In 2011, after his father died, Robinson returned home and turned around the family construction business. He was named UK Director of the Year in 2015 by the British Institute of Directors, a business leaders organization.

Returning to the United States in 2018, he wanted a fresh start — California — and a “passion project” — building, from a kit, a Berkut 540 airplane capable of 300 mph and pulling 9Gs.

He met Glenn Snyder, a programming prodigy who’d majored in visual effects at the Savannah College of Art and Design and worked on feature films, including Ender’s Game. Snyder once made a punching bag into a game controller. And he developed a way to combine the virtual and physical: So, for example, two real-life racers could drive real race cars on two separate physical courses laid out identically. Images projected into their visors as they drove enabled them to race against each other in a virtual space where each could see the other’s car.

Robinson saw an opportunity to merge his passions of flying and national defense.