Defense Simulation Firms Turn to Commercial Sector for Inspiration

By Valerie Insinna

Military simulations were once leaps and bounds ahead of the technologies available in the commercial market. Now, as millions of Americans own video game consoles that showcase high fidelity graphics and state-of-the-art hardware and software, that is hardly the case.

With near-term military simulation procurement uncertain, defense contractors are eyeing the commercial sector for potential fixes to looming headaches.

Industry executives want inexpensive off-the-shelf products that cut costs and can be integrated in military simulations. They also hope they can transfer decades of virtual training expertise to markets such as health care and transportation, which are seeking new modeling and simulation technologies.

The military training and simulation industry will take a hit during the fiscal downturn of the next decade, but the impact will be less severe than other defense sectors, said Mike Blades, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan. He projects the training and simulation market will decrease by 5 percent over the next five to 10 years, compared to the 7 to 10 percent decline likely to be experienced by the unmanned aerial vehicle and helicopter markets.

Government funding for simulation research and development is likely to shrink during that time period, leaving companies financially responsible for driving innovation, he told National Defense. Traditional defense contractors will continue to partner with commercial firms in order to get the newest technologies without having to spend their internal research, development, testing and evaluation dollars.

“Why spend the money on researching [how to develop] your own system when someone already has [developed] it?” Blades asked. “Nobody wants to take all the risk. … Why would a Lockheed Martin or a Northrop Grumman spend all the money on RDT&E when they can come in with a partner?”

Several new startup companies in the video game industry have already received attention from military simulation companies.

For example, Virtuix has not finalized its product design for the Omni, a treadmill-like platform that reduces the amount of space needed to conduct a scenario in virtual reality, but prototype versions are already in use by defense contractors, said Colton Jacobs, product manager.

BAE Systems, for instance, is developing a virtual reality simulator for infantry that employs the Omni alongside Virtual Battlespace 3, the flagship video game in the Army’s Games for Training lineup, he said in an interview. 

The Omni solves a problem common in both commercial and military virtual reality systems. Sensor technology used to track a user’s movements are relatively mature, but they are confined to the boundaries of the room they are playing in. One can only run so far in-game before they literally hit a wall in the practice space.

Virtuix plans on developing a military version of the Omni that would accommodate the size and weight of a fully equipped soldier, Jacobs said.

“The military version would have different kinds of support systems to allow for a soldier to wear his entire gear set while doing training, because right now it’s a little bit limited in terms of what I can wear on my body,” he said. It would also allow for more freedom of movement, such as being able to crouch.

To break into the military simulation industry, commercial video game companies must appeal to software developers though innovative, cost-saving technologies, said Joseph Chen, senior product manager for Oculus VR. Oculus VR created a virtual reality headset called the Oculus Rift for the gaming industry. A finalized device isn’t expected until at least 2014.

The Oculus Rift is not yet in the hands of troops, but prototype versions have been incorporated into scenarios, game engines and hardware developed by Northrop Grumman and Havok, Chen said. Bohemia Interactive Simulations also plans to integrate it into Virtual Battlespace 3, he said.

“Ultimately [developers are] going to be the creative minds that come up with these amazing applications, whether they be helicopter simulations, maintenance simulations, medical simulations. Who knows?” he said.

At a planned $300 per unit, the services could afford to buy headsets in bulk to use for virtual training. That may be a better value than buying one big, expensive training system because it would allow many troops to train together, Chen said.

While the Pentagon’s fiscal woes are good news for commercial companies that can market low-cost products to the military, defense contractors are looking elsewhere to expand sales of virtual training tools. 

There are few new-start aircraft procurement programs on the horizon, such as the F-35 joint strike fighter or the P-8 Poseidon aircraft for the Navy, Blades said. The military has already awarded contracts for many of those aircraft simulators, leaving a dearth of large acquisition programs.

LeAnn Ridgeway, Rockwell Collins’ vice president and general manager for simulation and training solutions, said, “The reduction in new platforms coming out is really what’s going to drive the food fight. … [If] there’s only three new platforms coming out over the next 20 years, it really draws a lot of big winners and losers.

The military will also save money — and cut down on the number of flight simulators acquired — by doing stringent planning to determine how many units are necessary, she added.

As the services enhance existing fixed or rotary wing aircraft, companies will glean opportunities to upgrade the corresponding simulators for those platforms, Blades said.

Even though the Defense Department may be scaling back simulation procurement, huge opportunities still exist inside other federal agencies, argued Ron Smits, general manager of readiness and training solutions at DRC, an Andover, Mass.-based technology and consulting company that works primarily with the government.

“Agencies like the Department of Homeland Security have not fully embraced yet the capabilities that modeling and simulation offer them to reduce their costs,” he said. For instance, Customs and Border Protection and the Coast Guard still rely exclusively on live training to practice shooting guns.

If virtual training is “good enough for our guys that are actually in combat, it’s an easy argument to make that it should be good enough for our guys that are patrolling the border or who are trying to board ships to engage with smugglers,” he said.

Smits acknowledges that government agencies with much smaller budgets than the Defense Department will have a hard time spending large sums of money on a simulation that takes years to return on investment costs. Companies can promote an incremental approach to gradually phase in simulators, such as a low-cost, high-fidelity software that can be run on a desktop computer, he said. Once government officials see the benefits of inexpensive, easily adopted virtual training, they can start including funding for future systems in budget plans.

DRC will continue focusing on government customers, but it also plans to expand further into medical and cybersecurity training, Smits said.

“There’s a lot of training opportunities that we see in the cyberspace,” he said. “We look at folks that are coming into the career field. How do we get them up to a master’s level sooner?”
About 60 percent of Cubic Corp.’s modeling and simulation business is for the government, but recent contract awards from the Navy will allow the company to hone in on commercial markets such as health care, said Bill Rebarick, deputy general manager for Cubic Advanced Learning Solutions.

Any technical innovations originating in Cubic’s commercial endeavors can then be brought to bear on future Defense Department programs, said Jan Cannon-Bowers, a chief scientist with the company.

QinetiQ North America is examining opportunities to create training for operating commercial vehicles, trains and aircraft, said Charlie Douglas, the company’s vice president of modeling and simulation. Instead of developing its own proprietary solutions, QinetiQ is moving toward a systems integrator role, where the company tailors open architecture or off-the-shelf solutions to meet customer needs, he said.

Space and energy exploration are two other markets with a growing need for modeling and simulation, Smits said.

Training for non-military operators of unmanned aerial systems will develop into a lucrative market once the Federal Aviation Administration integrates UAS into civil airspace, Blades said.

Blades advised companies vying for a piece of that market to create generic trainers that can accommodate a variety of aircraft, such as fixed-wing, quadcopter or hexicopter drones.  Doing so would give them a leg up on UAS manufacturers that develop their own training programs.

“It doesn’t cost a lot to make a generic UAS trainer, if you think about it. The software to do that kind of stuff is very inexpensive, and a lot of it is open source,” he said.

Companies need to have technologies ready as soon as the FAA opens civil airspace to commercial drones because “the first people to the punch are probably going to be the ones that get the most attention,” he said.

That’s exactly what Rockwell Collins is preparing for, Ridgeway said.

“We’ve been on the advisory boards and the front end in working with several global rule-making authorities on what is going to happen in the commercial airspace when unmanned vehicles enter in,” she said.

Ridgeway believes the Pentagon’s fiscal woes will force more government and academic studies on the value of virtual training. Research would measure what percentage of tasks can effectively be trained upon in simulators. “And then, at what point is good enough?”

Other executives agreed that proving virtual training’s return on investment would be vital in expanding future military sales.

“Nobody has yet really quantified the validity of online training versus instructor-based training,” Douglas said. The services need to evaluate what tasks are best learned in simulation and how much of an investment is necessary to create an effective system, he said.  

“Instead of a $40 million training device, will a $20 million training device give me the same transfer of knowledge or learning?” he asked. “I think we’re in that revolution now, trying to evolve technologies to fit the budget constraints without compromising the transfer of learning to the student.”

Topics: Business Trends, Defense Department, Simulation Modeling Wargaming and Training, Videogames

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