Todays simulation meeting technology wish lists

Feb. 1, 1997
Advances in military simulation is changing not only the way tomorrow`s military personnel will train, but also nearly everything else that influences their military and civilian lives.

By J.R. Wilson

Advances in military simulation is changing not only the way tomorrow`s military personnel will train, but also nearly everything else that influences their military and civilian lives.

The driving force behind these changes is the realization of the oldest mantra in defense procurement: smaller, faster, cheaper.

In the world of simulation, that means the computers, image generators, displays, and software that create virtual battlefields, realistic equipment replication, and even virtual-reality (VR) people.

As with computers themselves, this type of single-use equipment once was the purview of giant companies, required its own carefully controlled power, environment, and housing in huge, restricted-use rooms. Specialty software and databases ran from supercomputers to generate images no self-respecting 12-year-old would accept on even the cheapest video game today.

And that 12-year-old - grown to young adulthood and now in uniform - is one reason military training had to adapt to new technologies, new capabilities, and new expectations. Young officers and enlisted personnel raised on Disney`s Imagineering and Spielberg`s Industrial Light & Magic, who began using computers in grade school demand substantial realism and high fidelity.

At the same time, crashing budgets and the emergence of distributed interactive simulation (DIS) have combined to push the need for open-architectures, systems interactivity, and database commonality.

Move to PCs

As a result, simulation is moving from large supercomputers to desktop solutions; switching from RISC-based Unix systems to Pentium-based WindowsNT PCs; changing from big-budget dome displays and 6-degree motion platforms to helmet-mounted displays, VR glasses and less motion; even witnessing the emergence of an entirely new concept in displays - 3-D.

Simulation is one of the few areas of military budgeting that has not suffered as greatly as others, largely because simulators are used more and more heavily to replace traditional training with actual equipment.

It is fortunate technology has managed to provide this outlet, as noted by the post-Vietnam War concerns of then-Army chief of staff Gen. Creighton Abrams: "In time of shrinking budgets, the temptation will always exist to reduce training expenditures because the tangible value of training dollars is difficult to measure - difficult, that is, until a force inadequately prepared for the realities of combat is again sent into harm`s way. The price paid for unpreparedness will not be in dollars, but in blood and sacrifice."

Software continues to be a central challenge in simulation, particularly as simulation hardware becomes a commodity item. "The important thing is for the user to be able to continue to use his software from generation to generation - that`s where the real investment is," says Michael Smith, marketing vice president for Concurrent Computer Corp. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"People want open systems to reuse their software," agrees Judith Pafford, government marketing manager for Silicon Graphics Computer Systems in Mountain View, Calif. - especially as the platforms on which that software runs continues down a road of dramatic change. "The SGI systems are able to do a lot of the computer requirements that originally needed a Cray," she says.

And for a government that no longer has the research and development budgets to be the technology pusher it once was, simulator designers are finding new ways to keep commercially driven developments - most from the entertainment industry - from completely abandoning military needs.

"We spent $500 million on R&D last year and it didn`t cost the government a penny," Pafford says. "But if they could influence where we spend some of that, it would be more useable to them."

New challenges

The new key for the simulation industry seems to be defining the strongest markets - vertical and horizontal - then striving to be one of the top two providers in that niche, usually by finding some way to dramatically improve the product for one market, then carrying that same technology over to others.

"You will be seeing the training community start specifying real imagery rather than computer-generated images because it is becoming available with all the satellite data coming on-line," Pafford predicts. "You`ll also see growth in embedded training."

Substantial problems remain for designers to solve, however, such as how to "stimulate" hydraulic controls, ensure no crossover of real and simulated data, and develop flight-capable simulation systems (especially for naval aircraft).

The new push for simulation has included a greater emphasis on commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) components, which reduce acquisition and maintenance costs, promote system commonality and interoperability, and ease technology insertion. With an open architecture, common databases, and full portability, deployment no longer means an end to high-fidelity training.

"To me, the whole world is moving toward what we consider our `sweet spot,`" Pafford says. "We can build thousands of these" compact computers.

"We think full flight simulators won`t go away yet but will be supplemented by small, deployable simulators," says Edward Kulakowski, international marketing director for Reflectone of Tampa, Fla. "For that, we can containerize smaller-scale, lower-fidelity systems, including motion.

"About 75 percent of our hardware is COTS," Kulakowski continues. "The software is where we add value and that is fairly proprietary. That`s actually the hardest part and the hardest thing to find off-the-shelf."

At the same time, however, Reflectone engineers are working on new and more advanced reconfigurable cockpit simulators incorporating helmet-mounted displays to meet fast-changing customer requirements.

Meeting needs

"A lot of specifications coming from customers now are performance-based, with no requirements on specific equipment or even parameters (such as number of polygons)," notes Mike Lokuta, Reflectone`s director of research and development. "Maybe you don`t need all six degrees of freedom on a motion simulator. We configured one of our helicopter simulators to be four degrees, which can be containerized, and it met all real-world flight needs. We now have a concept for an electric [rather than hydraulic] four-degree platform."

The move to COTS hardware, open architectures, cross-platform databases, and smaller, less-costly computers and displays, has opened the simulation market to new companies, seen some once major names disappear, and others reduce their presence. It also has opened new markets that previous technologies could not satisfy, such as ground simulation.

In fact, ground simulation - one of the most difficult of all to do with acceptable realism - is one of the fastest growing opportunities in the field, say officials of longtime industry leaders such as Evans & Sutherland of Salt Lake City.

Even as declining component prices expand the market, the cost of entry into high end simulation for new competitors remains significant due to the economies of development, even as surviving high-end providers look for new customers, cautions E&S marketing vice president Greg Phipps.

Nevertheless, even leaders of established high-end simulation houses like E&S must keep up with technology trends and find new markets for their wares. "We`re leveraging our high-end products into new markets, such as entertainment and education," Phipps says. "One area where we`ve established presence and is really growing is planetariums." E&S also is part of the move from a vertical Unix-based simulation arena to a more horizontal, NT-based workstation market.

"We`re not abandoning Unix, but we`ll be filling in a lot of our new product line and focusing on the NT base," Phipps says. "There is a lot of life left in the Unix market and we will continue upgrading and improving those units. But our development money will primarily be focused on the NT market."

Multiple platforms

Others are adopting the multiple platform approach now common in commercial software and hardware, such as the Tactical Mission Analysis and Training Environment (TACMATE) from Ball Aerospace & Technologies of Boulder, Colo.

"Using DIS protocols, TACMATE provides real-time interactive scenario control of player behavior," says Vance Saunders, chief of business development and marketing for Ball`s Systems Engineering Operations.

"It also allows users to designate human or computer control of any scenario object at any time during the simulation," he continues. "We also can add a user`s objects and data to TACMATE`s own robust set of threats and environments. The program evolved from software Ball developed for the Navy to train UH-1N pilots; we then adapted it to meet the training needs of a variety of weapons platforms, providing greater flexibility for both the instructor and the trainee, whether they are using Unix or PC systems."

Ball also is a member of the Lockheed Martin team working on the Simulation Based Design (SBD) project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, whose experts are seeking to apply virtual prototyping to the acquisition and life-cycle support of complex military and commercial systems. The hoped-for end result, according to SBD literature, would be superior products that meet all customer requirements and expectations, but at substantially reduced cost, risk, and time to market. "This is the way many people believe business will be conducted in the future," Saunders says.

With the current speed of technological development, it often seems that what is considered speculative today will be in prototype tomorrow and the hot market item before week`s end. In recent years, VR, helmet-mounted and even smaller displays, three-dimensional sound, and immersive environments have conditioned the military user to expect a constant stream of startling advances in how he can train and plan for combat. In late 1996 and early 1997, despite all other advances that normally would have held center stage, perhaps the most commanding is the advent of true interactive 3-D displays.

At least two separate developments of 3-D tabletop displays are in progress on opposite sides of the country: The Immersive Workbench from Fakespace Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., and Mirage from the Institute for Simulation & Training (IST) at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

Sometimes referred to as pseudo-holographic images, experts from both groups create a truly three-dimensional scale model image viewable by numerous observers standing - or walking - around the display table. Both systems work with 3-D glasses, and both use COTS components to project the image onto the table (IST from above, Fakespace from below).

The Advanced Tactical Visualization System (ATVS) uses 3-D software from Coryphaeus Software (Los Gatos, Calif.)

To the observer, a battlefield may cover the tabletop that displays hills, gullies, buildings, trees, and rivers. Scattered across it, in fixed positions or moving, may be tanks, infantry, field artillery, and other surface elements. Flying above it, perhaps several feet off the surface at eye level to the observer, may be helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or fixed-wing aircraft, sufficiently realistic for an observer to flinch at the near passage of rotor blades.

"(We are) pulling back the curtain on the future of military engagement planning," notes John Murphy, sales and marketing vice president at Coryphaeus.

Such displays can be expected in future applications of training, especially for command-level staff, mission planning, real-time observation of simulation-based and real-world training, or in actual combat using combined imagery from Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System aircraft, UAVs, satellites, and other sources to provide commanders with a real-time view of friendly and enemy forces as they maneuver across the battlefield.

David Russell, an IST visual system scientist, says he believes the addition of pointing devices or gloves, such as Fakespace`s gesture-based PINCH gloves, will lead to applications of 3-D displays limited only by the imagination of those who use them.

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