Army Accelerating Synthetic Training Environment Programs

By Jon Harper

Image: Bohemia Interactive

The Army is shortening its timeline for delivering new synthetic training technology that will help warfighters prepare for battle.

The synthetic training environment, or STE, is a next-generation paradigm for enhancing readiness. The Army plans to use a combination of gaming, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality and other technologies to better enable soldiers to improve their skills, said Maj. Gen. Maria Gervais, deputy commanding general of the Combined Arms Center-Training.

“Units are constrained by time, training area availability, relevant operational environment data and also resources required to make training iterative, realistic and relevant,” she said during a presentation at the Association of the United States Army’s annual convention in Washington, D.C.

“We need to be able to provide our soldiers, leaders and units the ability to conduct hundreds of repetitions wherever they are located, so they can improve muscle memory and increase proficiency,” she added.

In October of last year, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley called for a rapid expansion of the service’s synthetic training capabilities.

Since then, the Army has established a new Futures Command in Austin, Texas, focused on its top six modernization priorities: long-range precision fires; next-generation combat vehicle; future vertical lift; the network; air-and-missile defense; and soldier lethality.

A STE-focused cross-functional team, led by Gervais, was established to help advance these efforts. It is most closely aligned with the soldier lethality portfolio, but is also geared toward the other modernization priorities, Gervais noted during a roundtable with reporters.

The Army increased its engagement with contractors over the past year, hosting several industry days to look at synthetic training technologies. That led to seven other transaction authority agreements which are designed to cut through red tape and speed up the acquisition of new capabilities by circumventing the Pentagon’s traditional acquisition system.

The seven OTA agreements were for reconfigurable virtual trainers and a new “One World Terrain” simulation environment.

“We did that in record time so that we could get to a user assessment” with soldiers and other stakeholders in March 2018, Gervais said. “We had master gunners, we had aviators, we had technical experts, we had center of excellence [officials] — and you got instantaneous feedback.”

The Army has since downselected to four vendors. Another user assessment is slated for March 2019 following additional technology development and modification.

Army leaders codified the synthetic training environment in their most recent vision statement, Gervais noted.

“You’ve seen alignment of priorities,” she said. “You’ve seen alignment of funding, you’ve seen alignment of the vision, and now … we’re postured to execute quickly.”

The service initially envisioned having the key components of its synthetic training environment in place by 2030, but those are now expected to achieve initial operating capability in fiscal year 2021.

Additional technology development and refresh will follow, according to the Army’s strategic roadmap for the STE.

“We have been able to … figure out that we can pull this timeline to the left, get this in the hands of soldiers quicker, because that’s how we’re going to improve lethality and that’s how we’re going to improve readiness,” Gervais said.

The Army has several top priorities for the STE including a squad immersive virtual trainer.

The military branches have advanced virtual trainers for pilots, but the Army wants that type of capability for dismounted soldiers.

“We have not had a virtual trainer for our squad,” Gervais said. “The good news is that based on what we’re seeing in terms of technology, we believe that we can deliver that much quicker” than the previous target date of 2025.

The capability will include a new visual augmentation system that will provide troops with “mixed reality” tools using a heads-up display known as HUD 3.0.

Mixed reality systems can blend synthetic computer-generated images or data with real images in real time. For example, a soldier wearing a heads-up display during training could see and interact with synthetic objects while maintaining situational awareness of what their squad mates are doing, according to experts.

Virtual and augmented reality technology has come a long way in recent years, with latency problems having largely been solved, said Brad Swardson, manager of mobile and immersive technology innovation at Northrop Grumman.

There is “lots of hardware and software coming out,” he said. “It’s definitely a big part of the future.”

Increased computer processing power is enabling smaller headsets with expanded fields of view, he noted. The equipment will be commonplace in the military within five to 10 years, he predicted.

The Army plans to conduct a user assessment of about 300 integrated visual augmentation system prototypes next year.

For vehicle and helicopter crews, the service is looking for reconfigurable virtual trainers that will enable a single system to simulate a wide variety of ground or aerial platforms.

Raydon Corp. has developed a prototype that can support gunnery and maneuver training for more than 30 different vehicles, according to a company press release. It is built on five portable base stations with interchangeable dashboards, panels, weapons and other equipment.

The system is fully integrated with Bohemia Interactive Simulations’ VBS Blue IG game engine.

The Army wants to replace large simulators with highly portable alternatives that leverage virtual reality, explained Pete Morrison, co-CEO and chief product officer at BISim.

“If you want to take your training simulators into theater … you can’t pack up these big tank simulators or helicopter simulators,” he said in an interview. “They are in these massive, huge trailers. This [reconfigurable trainer] would enable this kind of portability.”

The Army also wants its soldiers to be able to tap into a new One World Terrain simulation environment that would provide them with a high fidelity, 3D virtual rendering of real places throughout the globe. That would facilitate multi-unit training among different force components.

Gervais said the military wants something like Google Earth, an app where imagery of any location in the world can be easily accessed.

“It’s in a commercial format and you’re able to bring it straight into your 3D simulations — not just your virtual trainers but also our big, large-scale” wargames, she explained.

Michael Enloe, chief of engineering for the STE, noted that the Army currently lacks well-formed 3D terrain to enable rapid mission planning and mission rehearsal.

“That’s been the Achilles heel for Army simulations,” he said. “If we have an immediate threat come up, we lack the ability to be able to do different echelons of training to be able to respond to that.”

Gervais added: “We have 57 different terrain formats currently in our virtual trainers. So every time we need to do an exercise we’re trying to get those terrain formats to line up, and that’s just [consuming a lot of] time and money.”

BISim was recently awarded a six-month development contract using an other transaction authority agreement to build a One World Terrain prototype that is expected to be delivered in April or May.

“The Army is actively seeking out companies like Bohemia, Microsoft and Magic Leap to try and bring some of this … technology into the military space,” Morrison noted. “We’re in a whole new world.”

Enloe noted that the One World Terrain will require a large amount of data collection, processing, storage, distribution, execution and 3D content development.

“We’re seeing great advancements in commercial industry to be able to come up with creative ways to meet those type of needs,” he said.

A related requirement is training simulation software and management tools. To prepare for multi-domain battle in megacities, the service needs technology that will enable the creation of all the virtual entities that soldiers could expect to encounter if they were fighting in a real, dynamic urban environment, Enloe noted.

Cloud computing and artificial intelligence will be critical, he said. Industry needs to provide specialty code and the ability to train algorithms to rapidly develop new content and gaming scenarios.

Gervais said AI could provide important feedback about how well soldiers and units performed various tasks during training events.

“For that data to be consolidated, to be analyzed and then to give you trend analysis and also to give you predictive analysis is going to be a game changer,” she said. “It can help you understand where you need to train and where you don’t need to train.”

Going forward, the Army wants to move away from buying expensive platforms.

“We are very hardware intensive, we are facilities based, we are contractor heavy,” Gervais said. “That is not conducive to where we want to move with STE.” The department would prefer “software intensive” technology, she noted.

Bob Witzler, business development manager for L3 Technologies’ Link training and simulation division, said his company is already moving in that direction.

The company’s business portfolio is shifting from being heavily hardware focused to a more balanced mix of hardware and software solutions, he noted.

Advances in computing capability are turning software-enabled tools that just a few years ago were “interesting toys” into technology that can be used to conduct effective training with, he said.

In its quest for more portable and cost effective technology, the Army is also looking at handheld equipment like iPads and mobile devices that could stream training content, Enloe said.

Gervais pointed to the Netflix business model as something that could potentially benefit the Army. Netflix customers don’t do any of the back-end work, she noted. That is the responsibility of the content provider.

“I don’t worry about all the infrastructure that goes behind it,” Gervais said. “Why couldn’t we take advantage of something like that?”

Contractor-owned and maintained systems could potentially meet some of the Army’s needs while reducing overhead and maintenance requirements, she noted.

“We have several examples that are already in use out in the field right now that are very beneficial in terms of training as a service with the right [simulation] fidelity,” she said. “We’re looking at all of those options right now as we’re developing the STE.”

The Army wants the synthetic training environment to have open architectures and common standards so that the Defense Department doesn’t get locked into buying from a small number of vendors with proprietary systems, officials have noted.

Meanwhile, the Army will continue to leverage other transaction authority agreements whenever possible to quickly prototype and inform requirements for programs of record, said Brig. Gen. Michael Sloane, program executive officer for simulation, training and instrumentation.

“We will apply … the personnel resources and the dollars that are needed,” he said, adding that small and large firms are encouraged to work together. “We’re looking for a lot of nontraditional companies out there to come to us with technologies.”

Topics: Army News, Training and Simulation

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