TRAINING AND SIMULATION
Industry Shows Off New Army Combat Simulation Tools
While ground combat missions are winding down in Afghanistan, the defense industry is still churning out new training systems for soldiers that will keep them prepared for future conflicts.
Soldiers could face a myriad of threats in the coming years, and simulation training can affordably and reliably keep them ready for a multitude of situations, industry executives said.
The need for increased soldier training through simulation technology will only grow as fewer boots on the ground remain in the Middle East, said Christopher Vanslager, vice president of business development and program management at AM General.
“As we pull back, as we organize, the Army will go back into a training mode. Not totally, but they have to have environments to be able to continue to train on the equipment that they would go to war with. This is just a natural part of the preparation of going to war,” he said.
Clarence Pape, vice president of training and simulation at Intelligent Decisions, an Ashburn, Virginia-based company, echoed Vanslager’s sentiments.
“The military will continue to leverage simulation in their training and rehearsal environment as the budgets decrease.” That may not mean it will invest in new products, he said, “but I do think they will continue to look at the simulation capabilities that they already have to enhance their training experiences and to maintain proficiency in core combat skills.”
Industry has responded by upgrading and creating new training systems for paratroopers, vehicle drivers and ground soldiers.
One costly area of soldier training is learning how to free fall from a plane and parachute to the ground. Systems Technology Inc., a Hawthorne, California-based research-and-development company, has come up with a simulation tool called PARASIM to better train soldiers before they step foot on an aircraft, thus avoiding the operational hazards that go along with jumping from a moving plane thousands of feet in the air.
Wearing a virtual reality headset that incorporates 3D imagery, users are harnessed onto stations that lift and position them horizontally or vertically for different missions. They can then simulate a high-fidelity jump, said David Landon, the company’s president and CEO.
Earlier this year, the company released a fifth version of PARASIM upgraded with improved graphics and new, software-controlled motorized frames, among other capabilities.
In May, it installed six jump stations and one central network controller at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The combating terrorism technical support office funded the stations for use in military freefall and static line training.
Stations can be networked together so individual users can train with another soldier’s avatar, Landon said.
“We haven’t done this yet, but you could … team train with a team that’s in Fort Bragg with one that’s in Yuma,” Landon said.
So far, the Air Force has been the company’s biggest customer, but it has also sold systems to the Army and Special Operations Command, Landon said.
Australia, Japan, Spain and Poland have bought systems. Systems Technology recently inked a deal with Turkey for six systems, Landon said.
PARASIM will soon incorporate enhanced acoustic capabilities that simulate the frequency changes and loud sounds someone parachuting from a plane would hear as the soldier falls, Landon said.
“It’s another sensory input that gives you feedback,” Landon said. It “helps when you deploy your chute, you hear the chute go and if there is a malfunction you’ll hear the chute flapping.”
Both jump positions can be used for static line and emergency egress training. The horizontal version can also be used for free fall training.
The company is working to incorporate Microsoft’s Kinect motion sensor. It has had a beta version of the system for months, and it has proven useful, Landon said.
“One of the requests from all the users [was that] they wanted to be able to maneuver during free fall, and there really wasn’t any way to do that with any kind of fidelity because the first version of the Kinect didn’t have enough sensitivity, and we didn’t want to do anything with wires or pulleys,” Landon said. “With the new Kinect, it has that fidelity. It has so much fidelity it even tracks your fingertips.”
STI has so far received positive feedback regarding the Kinect, Landon said.
“It’s so compelling that … even when experienced jumpers get in it and start to use the free fall, they get so enamored with the free fall that they forget to pull their chute,” he said.
Another recently unveiled technology is AM General’s light tactical vehicle simulator. The system immerses users in a variety of combat-related scenarios with a three-screen display as they sit in a driver’s seat and operate the vehicle using an actual wheel and dashboard.
Vehicle operation can be complex, said Jeffery Adams, AM General’s executive director for global marketing and communications. It is “not as simple as just getting in the vehicle and pushing the gas. There’s a lot of technique that’s involved in driving light tactical vehicles.”
The system offers users a choice of missions and locations to operate in, including urban, desert and jungle environments. Weather conditions such as rain and snow can also be simulated.
By swapping out control panels and dashboards, users can practice driving other AM General vehicles including the Humvee, the deployable reconnaissance ground network-vehicle and the blast resistant vehicle–off road, Adams said.
The light tactical vehicle simulator is based at AM General’s Chippewa facility in South Bend, Indiana. Thousands of domestic and international soldiers have been trained at the facility, which also contains a 320-acre course for live training. Drivers learn how to operate vehicles as well as maintain them, Adams said.
The first step to train a soldier to operate a vehicle includes sitting in a classroom and receiving formal instruction from a teacher. The next involves using the simulator, Vanslager said.
“If the driver reacts strangely or makes a wrong move, you may crash in a simulator, but you’re not crashing the actual vehicle,” he said.
Besides giving soldiers a more robust training experience, simulators also save money, he noted.
“A simulator running on a computer is not the same thing as burning fuel or adding wear and tear to the vehicle, which is fairly costly,” he said.
AM General partnered with FAAC Incorporated, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based systems engineering and software company, to develop the simulator.
AM General has a second simulator also located at the Chippewa facility. The company is currently working to network both simulators together so that operators can train with each other.
The military has a number of simulation technologies that it uses to train soldiers. One of the most prominent, the dismounted soldier training system, is due for upgrades. The system, built by Intelligent Decisions, offers infantry training through a wearable system of sensors and other equipment.
The product, which came out in 2011, immerses soldiers in an interactive video simulation using virtual reality goggles. Soldiers wear a backpack that houses the computer, carry an instrumented weapon and strap sensors to their body. Users can see, hear and interact with others within the simulation.
The company recently acquired the rights, assets and intellectual property related to Quantum3D’s ExpeditionDI product line, Pape said. ID and Quantum3D had previously collaborated together to produce the dismounted soldier training system, with ID providing the software and Quantum3D developing some of the hardware, including the backpack and weapon.
Acquiring the rights to the ExpeditionDI line gives Intelligent Decisions more options when it comes to modifying the gear worn by soldiers, Pape said.
“In our acquisition, we took ownership of both the backpack and the weapon, which gave us greater flexibility to enhance the system based upon customer needs,” he said.
Some upgrades include a more rugged weapon, better graphics and faster computer processing, Pape said.
Additionally, Intelligent Decisions can now more easily modify the size and weight of the backpack, he said.
“It gives us the flexibility to change the footprint that the soldier wears. So if we want to go to a smaller form factor or a wireless form factor, we can do that with relative ease by enhancing the design and making changes to how the backpack was built,” Pape said.
DSTS uses Bohemia Interactive Simulation’s Virtual Battlespace game engine. On average, about 35,000 soldiers go through the system a year, Pape noted.