TRAINING AND SIMULATION
Army Has High Hopes for One World Terrain Training Tool
Image: iStockThe Army is creating a high-resolution virtual world realistic enough to help prepare troops for battles across the globe.
The Synthetic Training Environment, or STE, is a 3D training and mission rehearsal tool that brings together live, virtual, constructive and gaming environments to improve soldier and unit readiness.
Two years ago, as part of the Army’s widespread modernization effort, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley called for a rapid expansion of the service’s synthetic training capabilities.
A STE cross-functional team, led by Maj. Gen. Maria Gervais, was established to help develop next-generation training capabilities. It is most closely aligned with the soldier lethality portfolio, but is also geared toward the other modernization priorities, she told reporters at last year’s Association of the United States Army’s annual conference.
One World Terrain, also known as OWT, is one of several key components of the new training architecture which will provide an accessible 3D representation of the global operating environment, according to the service.
“It is a global, 3D terrain capability that we can pull down, bring in our simulations, simulators and our mission command information systems, so that units can train … anywhere in the world,” Gervais said during an interview at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia.
The Army’s current training environment is based on technology from the 1980s and 1990s, Gervais said. It also has 57 different terrain formats, which creates complications.
“If you have to deploy anywhere and you want to train on that terrain, … we had to go ask [base officials for terrain] and then we had to spend months trying to make it work in that simulator,” Gervais said. “With this, it’s all instantaneous.”
With the OWT library, any environment that has already been mapped can be accessed by trainees, Gervais said. If a terrain is not in its database “we can go fly either a commercial satellite [or] a drone and capture it ourselves, process it, and within 72 hours or less, bring it in immediately to start training.”
The service is using drones and satellite imagery to capture high-resolution terrain footage for the STE and merging those with imaging from the commercial market, said Lt. Col. Dylan Morelle, a simulations operation officer who works on One World Terrain.
“We could make terrain out [of just free commercial imagery], but it would be very low resolution and maybe not useful to most platforms,” he said.
Over the summer, the Army planned to collect imagery from Papua New Guinea to be incorporated in One World Terrain. The Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group — a unit created to provide operational advisory assistance to the service and joint force commanders — was slated to gather the footage.
“The unit is capturing terrain to send back and provide it to units that will ultimately go and train in Papua New Guinea,” Morelle said. Soldiers will “be able to train well before they ever go to” the country.
“That’s the whole concept — to get those training iterations at home stations multiple times before you ever go out to the real thing,” he added.
The STE team plans to incorporate virtual reality headsets and augmented and mixed reality to train soldiers, Gervais said.
Virtual reality completely immerses a user in a computer-generated environment. Augmented reality or mixed reality systems can transpose data or digitally created images on top of a real-world field of view. 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.
“From a training perspective, virtual reality is a good … mechanism to be able to deliver that training, but we know there are lots of limitations with it,” Gervais said.
For instance, network latency is one aspect the service is grappling with. If a VR scenario doesn’t have the correct frame rates per second, it can lead to motion sickness and nausea, she said.
Virtual reality scenarios might not be the best fit for soldiers in some exercises, she noted.
“In some instances … squads need to be able to see each other,” she said. “They need to be able to move, ... so being completely immersed like that is probably not a good venue.” Augmented reality and mixed reality can provide more flexibility, she added.
One World Terrain is designed to be interoperable with the Army’s Integrated Visual Augmentation System, which includes HoloLens augmented reality headsets. The terrain can also be integrated onto a smartphone or tablet, Morelle said.
HoloLens headsets are being created by Microsoft and offer a mixed reality heads-up display that overlays simulated imagery in a soldier’s view, according to the service. The first squad trainer capability is slated to be fielded in 2021.
The team is also employing artificial intelligence and machine learning to create scenarios to train soldiers to overcome complex problems.
“The intent is to challenge leaders and units in the human dimension using cognitive performance feedback,” Gervais said.
One Word Terrain will also work with the Army’s Reconfigurable Virtual Collective Trainer, which will incorporate air and ground platforms into training simulations, Morelle said.
The Army awarded Vricon — a geospatial-intelligence and data software provider — a contract for the One World Terrain capability of the Common Synthetic Environment. This encompasses three main capabilities within STE that the Army is currently pursuing: One World Terrain, Training Management Tool and Training Simulation Software.
Vricon is a joint enterprise of Saab, a Swedish aerospace and defense company, and Maxar Technologies’ geospatial satellite manufacturing division.
As a company that specializes in geospatial data processing, Vricon set itself apart by proposing to build One World Terrain off the foundation of high resolution 3D data already gathered, Isaac Zaworski, vice president of the company, said in an interview.
Rather than attempting to implement a system that takes partially complete and misaligned data sets from different sources, the company would instead start from a foundation built off of its high resolution 3D data.
A major focus point of the contract — which is worth nearly $95 million — is creating and putting one data standard into practice, he said.
“One of the big focus areas for us from a development standpoint is developing and implementing and getting agreement upon a single data standard that can be the interface to One World Terrain moving forward,” Zaworski said.
To do so, the company is working in concert with existing commercial standards organizations such as the Open Geospatial Consortium.
“We are laser focused on … getting this DevOps cycle running as quickly as possible, getting users involved as often as possible and getting to a point where we have a capability that can make it through a successful operational test at [initial operating capability] for the larger STE efforts,” he said.
The service has set an aggressive timeline for the Synthetic Training Environment with plans to reach initial operating capability by September 2021 and full operating capability by September 2023, Gervais said.
However, the project could face delays as defense legislation is fleshed out on Capitol Hill, Brig. Gen. Michael Sloane, program executive officer for simulation, training and instrumentation, said during a recent press conference.
“Everything is funding dependent,” Sloane said. “It depends [on] what comes out in the next few weeks and months [in budget legislation] that will determine how fast we can in fact get here,” he said referring to the service’s IOC goal for the synthetic training environment.
As of November, the government was operating under a continuing resolution. CRs are problematic for the Pentagon because they generally freeze funding at the levels of the previous fiscal year and inhibit new-start programs.
For now, the cross-functional team is working to ensure it can stay on a glide path to
reach initial operating capability in line with the current schedule, Gervais told reporters recently.
“The [legislative] marks will impact our ability” to achieve the IOC goal, Gervais said.
“Once we see the final [budget] number, we’ll understand the impact.”
As it edges toward its goal, the team recently launched a new, standalone network as part of its network integration pilot to help the service test software products to ensure the reliability of simulations, Gervais said.
The pilot stood up and became active in September, she said.
Soldiers have tested the new training technology at Fort Riley, Kansas; Fort Carson, Colorado; and in Orlando, Florida, Gervais said. Their feedback will help shape the STE moving forward.
The new training environment is network dependent, Gervais said. It will interface with operational networks and network-enabled platforms, according to the service.
The cross-functional team is also working with the Army’s chief information officer to upgrade the STE infrastructure, Gervais noted. A 5G wireless network connection is also being considered, she added.