God didn’t give me many skills, but I am reasonable with an airplane.
By Sonya Haskins
Retired Royal Air Force Daniel Robinson, the first foreign pilot who qualified to fly the American F-22A Raptor, makes this statement with sincere humility, despite the challenges he has overcome to accomplish more than most people could ever dream of.
Robinson grew up in County Durham, a coal-mining region of northeast England that was the setting for Billy Elliot, a 2000 British film about a young boy who wanted to pursue a career in ballet rather than follow his father into the coal mines.
Like the main character in the film, Robinson felt as if “aspirations were really low” for young people in the seaside town. He says he attended a bad school, the community was experiencing severe economic decline and as the local coal mines and shipyards were gradually closing, unemployment skyrocketed. Options for local employment at that time were few and far between. Fortunately, Robinson had his own sights set on something a little different.
While he was a teenager, he worked as a milkman and saved up his money to take flying lessons. Following his first lesson at age 15, a mentor recognized the potential in Robinson and encouraged him to apply for a Royal Air Force Scholarship.
According to the Royal Air Force website, “a career in the RAF is about discovering your natural talent.” The description goes on to describe ordinary people who have joined the RAF “often with nothing more than a desire to lead a less ordinary existence.”
This was certainly true of Robinson and at the end of five years of training, he graduated as a combat ready fighter pilot in August 2001.
Let that sink in. August 2001.
A few short weeks later the world changed and Robinson’s formative years as a fighter pilot were spent on operations and exercises across the world, including time in the Middle East.
In 2005, he was selected to attend the Royal Air Force Fighter Weapons School (the UK equivalent of Top Gun). It was early in his career and again, Robinson states that he was very lucky to be selected and even luckier to make it through the demanding course. Meanwhile, forged by shared security concerns in the wake of 9/11 and joint operations in the Middle East, the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom continued to go from strength to strength.
Following graduation from Fighter Weapons School, Robinson says that in 2006, he “became the luckiest fighter pilot in the world.”
The Lockheed Martin F-22 is a tactical stealth fighter developed for the United States Air Force and is the most capable combat aircraft on the planet. An aircraft that is without peer in the air dominance role but one that is also capable of ground attack, electronic warfare, and the ability to intercept signals for intelligence-gathering.
The United States Air Force allowed one foreign pilot to train as an F-22 Raptor pilot at Langley Air Force Base in Langley, Virginia. That incredible honor was bestowed upon Robinson and he became the first non-American fighter pilot in the world to fly the F-22 Raptor. He then went on to become an instructor pilot for the stealth fighter.
“It was a huge, huge privilege, as you can imagine,” Robinson comments about being chosen, “being that guy and being a Brit. It was extraordinary.”
His experiences during the three years he served as an instructor pilot with the United States Air Force began to form the foundation of what would become Red 6. Before he began to pursue AR technology, however, Robinson would face some of the toughest moments in his life.
Tragedy and Change
In 2009, when his career as an F-22 pilot came to an end, Robinson considered what he might want to do outside the military.
First he attended Georgetown University and earned a Master of Business Administration. Soon after, he took a “transition” job in the greater New York City area. Although he kept coming back to his passion for flying and the problems that industry was facing, he wasn’t exactly sure how to solve them.
Then in November 2011, Robinson received a call from England.
Daniel’s father had built Gus Robinson Developments, a construction, plumbing, and electrical company, from the ground up in the early 1970s. Nearly 200 employees, mostly local Hartlepool residents, depended on the company as the primary source of income for their families and Gus was calling to tell his son that the family business was going bankrupt. He needed him to come home.
Although Dan told his father he’d catch the next flight out, the next morning he awoke to the tragic news that his father had committed suicide. The man who had been his best friend, a wonderful father, and the most formative person in his life was gone.
“My world collapsed at that moment in time,” says Daniel.
Although he had faced many challenges during his life, those moments were nothing compared to the days following his father’s death. He was trying to process what had happened, comfort his mother and sisters, and also make decisions that would affect hundreds of others in his small community.
“I called a meeting the next day,” explains Robinson, “I went in and told them the truth of what had happened.”
He calls it a pivotal leadership moment because he knew that his speech “would either bind them behind me or we’d collapse.”
Robinson isn’t one to mince words. He clarified that the business was in trouble and their success or failure would boil down to the next six months. Since so many local families depended on the company, any decisions would ultimately affect an entire community. He asked everyone to sacrifice collectively for the good of the team and he would sacrifice most of all.
It was a critical, inspirational speech and a turning point in the company.
The next day Robinson met with the bank and asked them for time. They pointed out that he was close to bankrupt, but he asked them for a month to come up with a business plan. When they agreed, he went straight to work, taking no time to mourn the father he loved so dearly.
Over the next several years, he rebuilt his father’s business and shaped it into a much bigger company worth several million pounds. When talking with Robinson, you can tell he is incredibly proud of what Gus Robinson Developments had become. He did what was necessary to create the best situation for everyone and he sold the highly successful company in 2018. However, it came at great cost to him in every area.
“At that point,” Robinson says, “I was exhausted, shattered, and moved back to the United States to try to get back on with my life.”
He initially moved to New York, but decided to seek a fresh start in California. It was during this time that he began to think about the continuation of his life purpose. No doubt his father’s death had a great impact on him in this area.
“I began to ask myself a simple question,” he explains, “if my life was up in a month of time, how would I spend my days?” He decided he’d want to spend time with his friends, eat good food, drink good wine, practice his beloved art of Brazilian Jiujitsu, and he would want to fly again.
Back in the Air
Soon afterwards, Robinson walked into a flight school at the Santa Monica Airport.
“There was a young trainer there – a kid who was about 21 years old,” he recalls. “After the first lesson, the kid said, ‘You know. I think you might have some potential as a pilot.’”
Of course Robinson had a nice chuckle.
The time around airplanes again was integral to the formation of Red 6. Robinson explains that each day he had been visiting the hangar, walking past a guy named Dave. Eventually he began helping Dave work on his Berkut, a homebuilt aircraft with tandem seating for two.
One day Dave found out that his friend was in fact a former F22 pilot so he asked if Robinson would like to fly his Berkut.
“I was just flying around with a big grin on my face,” he says. In fact, he enjoyed flying the Berkut so much that he told Dave he’d like to build one of his own. His friend strongly recommended against it, citing the cost and the complications of finding a kit and the complexity of the build.
Dave also recommended against it for personal reasons. His best friend, Rick had been a Berkut demo pilot who was killed in a Berkut accident during the 65th Annual Santa Paula Air Show in 1995.
Robinson was processing all of this for a while, but then a couple of months later, when he walked into the hangar, he was met by an elderly gentleman, Sam. Dave had told Sam about Robinson and the two of them took him to the desert to show him something. It was a kit. In fact, it was Rick’s Berkut kit.
“It has been sitting in the desert for 21 years waiting for you to build it,” Dave said.
At that moment, although he knew he should be focusing on the next stage of his career, the fighter pilot who had lost so much knew what he had to do and he committed to building the finest example of the Berkut that has ever been built.
Virtual and Augmented Reality
There are moments in life when we see a clear path, but most of the time we just do the best we can, hoping we end up somewhere worthwhile. Then there are those times when we feel compelled to do something, but we can’t possibly know all the ways it will impact our lives.
Robinson’s decision to build the Berkut led to several key contacts, including technologists in the fields of virtual reality and augmented reality. One of them, Glenn Snyder had co-developed the famed virtual drift race car experience in VR.
As he began talking with these experts in AR and VR, his mind went back to the problems he had seen with the F-22s and he began connecting the dots.
Once he understood how VR and AR worked, he knew that some of the problems wouldn’t be solved with virtual reality, but he wondered if there was a way to use augmented reality to train pilots while they were in the air.
Together, they came up with a thesis and basically called up the U.S. Air Force, stating that they were developing a technology that could fundamentally help to solve their training crisis. He discovered that they had already been working on a research program when they referred him to the Air Force Lab.
It was at that point that Red 6 really began to come together. He began trying to find ways to answer the question, “How do we train in the future?”
“Every time you go up and fly for training, you need an aircraft and an instructor to train against” explains Robinson.
There are some major challenges in training fighter pilots, including the fact that it’s incredibly expensive. In addition, we’re already critically short of fighter pilots because it’s difficult to recruit and train them. This also means there are fewer qualified instructor pilots available for the next generation of recruits.
Finally, Robinson points out that “the general public thinks you can just roll in and fight with relative impunity” because in the past we’ve pretty much been able to do this. He points out, however, that with the re-emergence of Russia on the world stage as well as the fact that China is really engaged in technology and innovation, we should be worried.
“The once technological advantage that we’ve enjoyed,” states Robinson, “is basically no more.”
Historically for training, our pilots would have other US fighter jets simulating the bad guys, but this isn’t feasible anymore, largely due to cost, lack of qualified pilots and critically, the inability to simulate modern near-peer adversaries.
Once he had the attention of the U.S. Air Force, Robinson set about incorporating AR technology into an airplane so he could prove that their thesis was possible in a cockpit. In February 2019 he gave a demonstration on the ground.
Guests went into an AR headset that had been built by Red 6. They then flew up alongside a tanker, flew up into the sky, and then flew a mission against two Russian airplanes and did a visual dogfight. This was all simulated on the ground, but guests were introduced to augmented reality in a fighter cockpit. That was the goal of the first demo – simply to show possibilities.
Next Robinson had to prove that his concept was possible in the air.
He obtained a small business innovation grant from the U.S. Air Force and since November, Robinson has been demonstrating the technology. The response has been incredibly positive.
Today, Red 6 has raised over $3.5m in seed funding and over $1.5m in non-dilutive USAF research grants. The company will be raising a Series A round in 2020.
“We’re solving AR outdoors and in dynamic environments as well,” Robinson states. “That’s something we should all be excited about.”
In fact, although he believes Red 6 is essential because the military must discover ways to address the national security crisis surrounding training, Robinson also believes the AR has many other practical uses.
“Today, AR is a solution in search of a problem,” he says, adding that “the consumer market is not here yet, but for a ubiquitous AR future to be realized, the technology has to be mobile in nature, be anchored around compelling use cases, and be a technology that people want to wear.”
By helping to solve the challenges of using AR outdoors and in dynamic environments, Robinson’s team at Red 6 is not only helping the military, but they’re helping to provide answers to questions about an emerging technology that is sure to impact countless areas of our lives.