Training in a virtual world is cost effective
Warfighters are spending more time than ever in virtual environments as military leaders take advantage of commercial technology that finds itself in simulators with a realism unheard of 10 years ago - all while saving millions in infrastructure and live training expenses.
Training even one warfighter or pilot continues to be a multimillion dollar endeavor, with the soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine deserving every penny of that expense. “Train like you fight” is still the motto, but more and more, modern training and mission rehearsal constitute a virtual experience – whether it’s flight training or practicing for urban combat scenarios.
Military leaders are leveraging Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) hardware and software to create complex training environments before warfighters even get to live training. The use of COTS technology also makes virtual training attractive from a cost management perspective – which is good news for military simulation designers in today’s budget-constrained environment.
“One cannot have a conversation about the military market today without talking about budget constraints and cuts,” says Chris Stellwag, Director of Marketing Communications at CAE Inc. in Montreal, Quebec. “This is the condition that defense suppliers are operating under in the U.S. and elsewhere. However, there are positives for those in the simulation business as simulation can be an economical solution to budget constraints. The advantages of simulation play right into a budget-constrained environment as the military looks to more of a live and virtual blend. Military leaders will want their aircraft for operational use to make them last longer, so they will use more virtual training. It’s not that they don’t use simulation extensively now, but we see the Services moving more toward virtual training.”
“With everybody worrying about sequestration, Department of Defense (DoD) funding is getting hit across the board,” says LeAnn Ridgeway, Vice President and General Manager Simulation and Training Solutions at Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, IA. “However, there is a cost benefit by using more virtual training in simulators and less in live aircraft. We do really believe the simulation technology piece of the DoD budget is a little more isolated from budget cuts in the overall market.”
“Most of us [simulation and training managers] agree that budget cuts will ultimately require an increase in the use of virtual training because there is no other way to maintain readiness with reduced funding,” says Dave Janke, Vice President Sales and Marketing, Simulation Division, North America at Barco. “However, there is currently much uncertainty, even chaos, in defense budgets, and we may experience a short-term dip in simulator purchases as governments sort out what funds they have to work with and then make formal allocation decisions. The long-term outlook for simulation is very positive. Air forces will have no choice but to extend the life of existing platforms by moving flight hours to the simulator. This inevitable transfer poses two challenges to industry: 1) to increase simulator fidelity so that training effectiveness is not sacrificed, and 2) to decrease operational costs.”
“Because of the high operational tempo over the last decade, U.S. military airframes in particular have had their life expectancy shortened, with aircraft that have been used more than was expected,” Stellwag says. “We have been doing upgrades on the 19 KC-135 flight simulators because they need to extend the life of those aircraft as the next-generation KC-46 platform comes onboard. The KC-135 will be around for another 10 to 20 years, so the [USAF] needs to maximize operational use of the aircraft.
“The U.S. Navy also is changing its curriculum to move more into virtual simulation by 2020 for the MH-60R helicopter,” Stellwag continues. “Currently 39 percent of training is done in a virtual training environment; the rest is in a classroom or in live training. They want to move to close to 50 percent by 2020. That is a significant increase, as the total number of helicopters in the fleet is not expected to grow. A new platform – the Navy’s P-8A maritime patrol aircraft – will have at least 10 simulators built for training on 117 aircraft. CAE is subcontracted to Boeing to build the P-8A simulators. The Navy is shifting its curriculum to virtual partly due to economics and partly due to the improved quality of training and enhanced realism of the simulators. You can do more in simulation than you could a decade ago.”
COTS and simulation
Much of the realism in today’s simulators comes via the commercial world where the billion dollar gaming industry drives innovation. The COTS displays, projectors, graphics processors, and so on, are being leveraged by the military to enhance the realism of virtual training for the warfighter.
“The best example of realism is the visual ‘out the window’ views driven by the display technology and the graphics hardware that generates the image,” Stellwag says. “Displays and graphics cards are both leveraged for simulation from general commercial industries such as gaming. The display technology used today is mostly Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCoS) projectors. Since the mainstream consumer electronics industry drives those technologies, they are much more cost effective as well. For modern simulation you need to have open systems that use COTS and are interoperable with other types of systems. When the technology is proprietary, it can be difficult to get systems talking together. Time sensitivity then becomes critical as you don’t have months and months to build interoperability between proprietary systems.”
However, not everyone thinks COTS is always the best choice. “I think it is a dichotomy with COTS versus custom technology,” Ridgeway says. “Commercialization does help reduce cost through open architectures, and COTS provides an advantage with less expensive equipment and components. However, for highly complex missions, COTS isn’t always the best choice because it is at the whim of consumer markets and difficult obsolescence issues. Some simulation systems are so complex that the software tends to need the specialized displays not found in the commercial markets. For the more complex training solutions, you have to be careful when deciding COTS versus custom so you are not held hostage by these issues. Custom designs can have a higher price tag, but have surer footing for long-term life cycle support.
“There are complex training problems and very complex ones,” Ridgeway continues. “It is kind of a bit of a duopoly in the market where you have the easier training issues solved by one end of the market and the more complex training issues solved in the other end where Rockwell Collins resides. We’re solving complex issues for platforms such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program. The JSF visual solution is a 360° field of view with night vision goggle stimulation and advanced sensor capability. We also are heavily involved with Navy E-2C and E-2D aircraft programs where we’re working on integrated cockpits and avionics systems. The fact that we develop avionics systems for military aircraft also makes it easier to transition the technology to simulation and training sessions.”
Display and projector technology
“Today’s full-mission simulation displays are 360° immersive displays with deeper black levels and higher resolution than ever before, mimicking the quality of night sky in a simulator,” says Peter De Meerleer, Director of Product Management for Barco Simulation and Training in Kortrijk, Belgium (see Figure 1 on page 32). “These capabilities are made possible by LCoS technology, which offers the highest resolution and deepest black level. Projectors today can provide as many as 10 million pixels, simulating almost to eye liming resolution level. The contrast ratio of the projectors can be superior to 10,000:1 with dynamic ranges that go over 1 million:1. Black levels can still be improved. Deeper, better black levels will be important as users demand more night scene and stimulated [Night Vision Goggle] NVG training to be integrated into simulator designs.”
“A feature of Barco’s SIM 7 LCoS projector is its ability to stimulate … NVGs,” Janke says. “It has extraordinarily high contrast, which provides excellent NVG stimulation and an optional version of that emits an enhanced light spectrum with more infrared light and produces especially robust IR imagery that very accurately reproduces the night sky spectrum and its effects on genuine night vision goggles. Pilots can use their own goggles and experience highly realistic NVG training.”
“The cutting-edge improvements on the projectors and the immersive aspect of systems enable pilots to look all around them in a full 360° horizontal field of view, seeing images of other airplanes or targets, which requires a very large amount of pixels that was not previously feasible or affordable before high resolution LCoS technology,” De Meerleer says. “The simulators can make use of fully immersive screens with multiple projectors at the same time with brightness and color automatically adjusted between the different projections.”
Rockwell Collins projector technology enables deeper black levels for JSF training. “The Rockwell Collins 2015 projectors are used in the JSF simulation program,” Ridgeway says (see Figure 2). “We’ve got a patented technology in there that absolutely allows for the blackest black – levels you can’t get from other commercial technology such as LCoS projectors. Typically LCoS systems have higher ambient light. We have patented technology that enables us to reduce the overall ambient light and reduce contrast so you can see the required black levels. I think this is a case where COTS doesn’t just quite cut it. For high-end, complex simulation like the JSF, you need to move away from commercial theater projectors.
Virtual flight training via datalink
“Rockwell Collins also has been working on building an embedded training architecture – Live Virtual Constructive Training – that is built around adding virtual simulation capability in a light training aircraft via a datalink, so pilots can do virtual training while flying the aircraft,” says Kevin Hynes, Director of Simulation and Training Solutions Engineering at Rockwell Collins. “It would simulate functionality not currently present in the aircraft such as radar and other sensors.
“The process enables us to have a simulation environment tied into a datalink,” Hynes continues. “It is similar to a typical simulator, except we drive those same simulation entities up the datalink with the simulator residing in the aircraft from a conceptual standpoint. For example, light aircraft without a radar system can have this functionality – entities, radar display and controls, etc., replicated virtually on the flight deck. The replication is viewed on an additional display or we can inject the graphics onto actual aircraft displays. We are currently implementing it as an embedded mode. It is important to note that this is a partitioned architecture, run on lower levels of criticality, so that it does not interrupt aircraft symbology. This enables new functionality to be added without having to recertify aircraft software.”
“Simulators that are portable or what the military calls ‘deployable’ are in containerized packages that are brought in theater to maintain concurrency and readiness when warfighters are not operational,” Stellwag says. “Budget issues partly drive this too, as shifting soldiers to live combat training centers is much more costly than having them train at their home station.”
“The Army has really embraced mobile training systems such as our Transportable Black Hawk Operations Simulators (TBOSs),” Rockwell Collins’ Ridgeway says. “It saves time and money by enabling pilots to be trained in the field. We can rapidly relocate the T-BOS to a garrison or field environment. It takes only eight hours to set up complete training and has a modular architecture that can be reconfigured in just four hours in the field. T-BOS has UH-60M avionics including cockpit displays from Rockwell Collins. Mobile simulators also reduce fixed operating bills and lower long-term capital and maintenance costs.”