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Topside Training Submerges Students In Virtual Reality

July 2001
By Maryann Lawlor
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Hands-on experience improves learning for sailors down under… the sea.

Submariners are being immersed in the latest in simulation technology to familiarize them with their future stations and duties. Hardware and software under development during the past few years have come to fruition, and instructors at the U.S. Naval Submarine School, Groton, Connecticut, are excited about the positive impact the new systems have in their classrooms. Students are so excited about training in this fashion that they actually refuse to leave when the final bell rings.

Personnel who have been intimately involved in delivering an impressive array of classroom tools say this hands-on approach to training prepares submariners in a way that has not been possible until now. Although the school has employed technology in training for some time, during the past several months it has integrated simulation equipment and software into its courses that take learning to the next level. It is a place where submariners can submerge themselves in the craft and be at the controls with the sights and sounds they will experience when they report for duty on board.

As a result of growing up with video games, the sailors attending classes today are quite comfortable interacting with technology. Their duties on a submarine are certainly of a more serious nature; however, their experience using electronics and video screens to move through a virtual space or set commands in motion easily translates from advancing through increasingly difficult levels of Nintendo to learning to operate on a  submarine. Some of the technologies developed by the Naval Air Warfare Center, Training System Division (NAWC-TSD), Orlando, Florida, help instructors teach a range of skills from very basic knowledge about navigating within a vessel to submarine ship handling and piloting to weapons launch.

One effect of downsizing the military has been the requirement for all crewmembers in a unit to be able to do each other’s jobs. This is particularly true on a submarine, which has a staff that is smaller than many other craft. It can take from eight months to a year for the majority of young men to demonstrate sufficient knowledge to earn their dolphin pin, signifying that they are qualified in submarines.

Instructors at the school expect to shorten this qualification time by one-third with the introduction of the submarine virtual interactive shipboard instructional tour (VISIT). According to Lt. j.g. Nigel A. Sealy, USN, general skills training division officer, U.S. Naval Submarine School, 16 digital photographs were taken of each specific area of the USS Miami to create the program. These were assembled into a seamless 360-degree picture that allows the student to stand in several dozen locations on three decks in the weapons, berthing and electronics compartments. Each student views the submarine at individual consoles, and teachers use 52-inch television screens at the front of the class for instruction.

Using a mouse or the keypad, the trainees can familiarize themselves with an area by viewing a complete picture of the compartment that appears on the screen. To learn more about a particular component in the picture, the student touches or moves the cursor on the image. A computer-generated voice then briefly describes the item.

The student concurrently sees a diagram of the entire submarine so that he knows where on the submarine he is located. When a user moves from location to location, a white stick figure walks through the submarine at approximately the same pace it would take to physically walk the spaces.

The program also creates individual tasks as training exercises to be accomplished. After the initial orientation, the student takes a quiz that requires him to walk through the virtual submarine and find specific equipment. For example, the computer may ask the trainee to find the bridge access hatch. “Congratulations,” the computer says once the task has been accomplished, “now find the fan room access door.”

Lt. Sealy points out that VISIT resembles video games in its levels of difficulty. Students use a task bar to choose either easy, medium, hard or “I built the ship” levels.

The simulation, designed by a large team of experts, is so realistic that students have gotten dizzy when the instructor turns the view end over end on the large screen at the front of the classroom. It is so popular that Lt. Sealy has banned students from using it during the first couple weeks of class. “Students have to complete their academics before they can go into the virtual sub. It’s usually used during the fourth week of training,” Lt. Sealy explains. “If you give this to them their first day, they’re not going to do anything else. It’s like a game.”

While VISIT acclimates submariners to their surroundings, other simulation technology used at the school trains students for the tasks they will be asked to perform when they report for duty.

Although land-based simulator facilities exist for training submarine piloting teams, they do not provide harbor and channel ship-handling training for the officer of the deck (OOD). Until now, this training took place only on the job. But a recently acquired simulator, called the virtual environment for submarine ship handling and piloting training (VESUB), changes all of this by allowing junior officers to learn in a realistic computer-generated environment.

Lt. Cmdr. Derek J. Rollinson, USN, who works for the operations/navigation training department at the school, explains that a head-mounted display provides the trainee with a 360-degree view of a simulated harbor that contains all of the visual cues associated with harbor and channel navigation. This view can be switched from a ship’s own bridge to a binocular view. The trainee also hears typical harbor sounds such as wind, waves and navigational cues.

Voice recognition and synthesis software allows the student to interact with a computer-generated navigator, helmsman and the engineering officer of the watch. “The student can issue commands that the computer sub recognizes and responds to just as humans would. We have three computer-simulated voices that are all slightly different depending on who would respond to a command,” Cmdr. Rollinson offers.

VESUB, which consists primarily of commercial hardware and software, features four databases that contain the visual information about Groton, Connecticut; Norfolk, Virginia; Kings Bay, Georgia; and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A database of open-ocean information also is available. Training is provided within the context of progressively challenging scenarios that support specific learning objectives.

Because it is a virtual environment, students can learn how to react in specific situations they may encounter at sea. For example, VESUB simulations create scenarios involving different weather conditions, contact management, collision avoidance as well as other emergencies such as a man overboard or a jammed rudder.

This is one of the biggest advantages of this type of training, Cmdr. Rollinson relates. In on-the-job training, new personnel can only observe how an experienced crewmember handles these situations. VESUB allows them to learn by doing, and if they make a mistake, the program simply can be reset, the commander says. The system also allows the instructor to intervene, he adds.

One student will interact with the simulation while others watch on screens that display the participant’s view. Each observer would then have a chance in the simulator, beginning his segment where the last person left off. There has been discussion about how long students can stay in a simulated environment, the commander says. Some people experience motion sickness if they remain in a simulator too long, he explains.

Because the school only recently took delivery of VESUB, course curricula are still being finalized. Currently, the school plans to use VESUB to train junior officers during their first tour of duty on a submarine. After achieving some initial qualifications, the officers would report to Groton for a one-week course to acquire the skills they need to serve as the OOD.

Cmdr. Rollinson relates that the VESUB’s development team also had to overcome the challenge voice recognition technology poses. If the trainee does not speak loudly or clearly enough, for example, the computer does not recognize the command. This is a user shortcoming that instructors want to correct anyway, the commander states, because the OOD always must be sure to issue orders the crew can hear and understand.

During the next two years, the Navy plans to integrate VESUB and the submarine piloting and navigation (SPAN) trainer. According to Cmdr. Rollinson, the SPAN trainer does not have a helm, lookout or OOD station for training. The goal is to link the systems so that a team of submariners can train together as a crew on a whole virtual submarine, he explains.

“As the trainer develops and we get more capabilities, we could use the simulation to train perspective commanding officers as well as [teach] tugboat maneuvering,” Cmdr. Rollinson offers.

While the school’s leaders continue to stretch their imaginations about how simulators will be used in the future, today the school is employing simulation technologies to train other positions of a submarine crew. The weapons launch console team trainer (WLCTT) duplicates every action that a torpedoman or fire control man needs to accomplish, says Machinist’s Mate Chief Eric C. Mathley, USN, leading chief petty officer, Weapons Delivery Systems at the school.

Featuring touch-screen monitors and software, the WLCTT replicates the six fire control systems currently on fast-attack submarines. This capability has not been possible since the introduction of vertical launch weapons on submarines, so until the simulation trainer was developed all training was conducted on board, the chief says. Students are placed in a scenario that they must play out; however, the instructor can change the lesson with the touch of a button.

“Right now, you cannot train as effectively as you’d like to onboard a submarine because you can’t insert faults into any and every aspect of the procedure. With the WLCTT, we can train on any incident you will encounter and can insert any fault the boat’s training plan requires. We have 28 faults for vertical and 10 faults for horizontal launched weapons, and if we blow up a missile, it happens on a video monitor only and doesn’t cost the Navy $1.5 million per missile,” Chief Petty Officer Mathley explains.

“The greatest thing about this trainer is that this is all commercial off-the-shelf [COTS] equipment. Unlike previous generations of trainers, the components that comprise the WLCTT aren’t unique to the military. The trainer is made up of 12 networked computers with 26 touch-screen monitors and five mouse-driven monitors. It’s an integrated system of COTS equipment.

“The key to appreciating the impact the WLCTT has on submarine training is to realize that until the technology had evolved to its current state, we couldn’t have developed this trainer. This is 21st century technology we are implementing,” he says.

Six courses of instruction use the WLCTT for different tasks. The trainer currently is being employed in classes that last from as short as one day to as long as 14 weeks, where the trainer is used during part of the course of study.

The NAWC-TSD began work on the trainer as a result of a concept that evolved out of the Gulf War. A number of missiles were not getting off the submarine and other areas of concern existed, so the NAWC-TSD was tasked with designing and building a simulator that provided not only a simulation for the missile launches but also for the communications between the fire control and torpedo room.

The trainers are currently in use at Groton and Pearl Harbor. This month, Norfolk is scheduled to take delivery of a trainer, and in September, San Diego is scheduled to receive a WLCTT. “When the Virginia class of submarines joins the fleet, we’ll be able to write software to reflect that environment as well. So, we’ll be maintaining that flexibility,” the chief says.

Instructors at the submarine school agree that simulation is by far the best way to train students. The hands-on experience exceeds what trainees can otherwise both learn and retain and at the same time reduces training length, they say.