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Simulator Taps Soldiers' Gaming Skills

June 9, 2011
By Rachel Eisenhower, SIGNAL Online Exclusive

The U.S. Army is introducing its first fully immersive virtual simulation program for dismounted soldiers and small tactical units. The Dismounted Soldier Training System will provide virtual environments for soldiers to increase combat preparedness and reduce traditional training expenses. And the system’s advanced graphics and tools utilize video game elements and skills already familiar to young soldiers.

Led by the Army’s Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation, the $57 million system will provide a collaborative platform for soldiers to tackle major combat operations, irregular warfare, peace operations, limited intervention and peacetime military engagement.

For decades, the Army has used virtual training simulators for a wide range of tactical equipment, such as helicopters and vehicles, says John Foster, assistant project manager for the Army's Close Combat Tactical Trainer. But nearly 10 years ago, the Army recognized that a gap existed for training dismounted soldiers with means other than live exercises, Foster relates. The first attempt to close the training gap occurred in 2004, but the program did not receive the necessary funding. In 2008, the initiative was renamed Dismounted Soldier and successfully competed for support from Congress.

Developed by Intelligent Decisions Incorporated, the system is designed to simulate individual and collective tasks from the squad to company level, which can include reacting to an improvised explosive device, conducting a hasty attack and evacuating wounded personnel, among others. The program is best suited for training on kinetic-type missions and tasks under different atmospheric conditions on various terrains, explains Foster. “Virtual training complements and reinforces live and constructive training; it’s not viewed as an either/or solution,” he emphasizes. For training that is too dangerous or costly for live environments, the system is a viable alternative.

Floyd West, director of strategic programs for Intelligent Decisions’ Orlando Division and program manager for Dismounted Soldier, says the system’s advanced graphics make it unique. The program uses the CryENGINE development tool to provide photorealistic images, which enable soldiers to virtually interact with their physical environment and to use combat equipment, says West. “You want that suspension of disbelief just like going to a movie,” he relates. “We’re trying to get as close to reality as possible, and that starts with the graphics.”

The technology allows soldiers to use the same natural body motions they would use in a live environment, such as leaning around or under an obstacle and gesturing with their arms and hands to communicate, explains West. Soldiers can go from standing all the way down to a prone position in one continuous movement. In addition, the system can show human expressions for fear, anger and aggression.

This type of intense graphic environment capitalizes on the strengths of the young soldiers, says West. “These 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds grew up on Xbox, Wii and PlayStation. They’re used to that type of technology,” he adds. “If you look at it, 70 percent of all the kids in America have this type of technology in their bedrooms right now. So who deserves it more than our troops who are out there risking their lives?”

Intelligent will develop the virtual training system over a nine-month period, which will culminate in a user assessment in January 2012. If it receives a favorable assessment, Foster says the Army will begin fielding the system in March 2012. The first six test suites will go to forts Benning, Bragg and Leonard Wood and the Project Manager for Combined Arms Tactical Trainer Post Deployment Software Support facility in Orlando, Florida. In late 2012, six additional suites will be fielded to forts Bliss, Hood and Campbell. 

“The primary reason the Army pursues virtual training solutions is that they improve soldiers’ battle skills by providing training capabilities when tactical systems are not available or when the training mission is too dangerous,” says Foster. “This translates into better trained individuals and units, and ultimately, saves soldiers’ lives.”