Integration, Relationships And Virtual Work Make A Difference

August 17, 2009
By Rita Boland


Homeland security and military research at VMASC provides cutting-edge developments in the area of modeling and simulation for use by government, industry and other academic partners in developing applications to support military and homeland security operations at home and abroad.

Synergy among experts at academic institution yields tools to improve life for troops and civilians.

Modeling and simulation are becoming more critical in military and homeland security efforts, and academia is playing a key role in the ongoing development process. Old Dominion University has dedicated an entire center to the field with emphasis in several areas essential to government, including a division specifically focused on national defense and protection. The center’s personnel work with counterparts in other organizations to develop capabilities for efforts as diverse as planning hurricane evacuation routes and improving care for wounded warriors, and they offer analysis for particularly complex problems as well. In addition to their project-focused endeavors, the researchers are creating standards in modeling and simulation to ensure better interoperation in the future.

Old Dominion’s Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC) is a multidisciplinary collaborative center in which students and staff work with members of industry, government and academia to further applications and promote economic, business and academic development. The organization not only works with mid-size and large companies, but also has a business incubation program in which small businesses are housed at VMASC and work to create economic development for the region, becoming industry partners with the center.

VMASC’s focus areas are divided into seven topic clusters: military/homeland security; medical and health care; transportation; social sciences; virtual environments; game-based learning; and business and supply chain. Despite the official divisions, many projects involve more than one cluster, and personnel work together and share ideas. “There are no distinct stovepipes in VMASC,” explains Dr. Barry Ezell, the military/homeland security cluster lead. He also serves as a research systems professor.

The center has a deep workbench of experience to draw from for its projects, including a high level of leadership that oversees all the analytics work, research scientists who focus on problems and project scientists who concentrate on specifics. In addition, students pursuing postgraduate and doctorate degrees tackle problems, and modeling and simulation faculty at Old Dominion teach in the classroom but participate on large projects as well.

Ezell assumed his current role last September after a career as an Army officer. In the position, he not only will maintain the cluster’s military defense tradition but also will grow the homeland security focus. The military/homeland security cluster focuses on various initiatives and projects that present opportunities for collaboration with mid- and senior-level people in the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, as well as those in charge of urban-area security initiatives. These discussions help VMASC personnel better understand the officials’ modeling and simulation needs, which in turn helps the center partner better with industry.

The military/homeland security cluster works closely with organizations such as the Army’s Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation and U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM). Ezell says VMASC supports JFCOM through research and when the command needs a task answer for analysis or modeling and simulation. “We like to be their go-to organization,” he says, especially because the center is located close to JFCOM headquarters.

Ezell says that one benefit VMASC offers to its partners is collaboration between social scientists and engineers. Social scientists are collaborating with modelers on an insurgency modeling project. The two groups are working to transform conceptual models to computational models; social scientists use linguistic terms to describe certain factors, and the modelers crunch numbers for it. “We see this as a very important thing we provide JFCOM and the DOD [Department of Defense] in general,” Ezell says.

The synergy created by combining social science with traditional and systems engineering disciplines has become a hot topic in the modeling and simulation field. “That connection helps us get after a new problem we’ve been slow to come around to and that’s addressing that intelligent, adaptive enemy,” Ezell states. As foes modify their actions to counter coalition strategies, social scientists help engineers inject realism into the models. With the input from the soft and hard sciences, designers can create agent-based models and simulations.

Of the other projects underway at VMASC, several are particularly exciting to Ezell, including one scheduled to start shortly. “We’re trying to do some work for the U.S. Army to help streamline the Wounded Warrior program,” he says. “How can we leverage modeling and simulation to streamline that program so that soldiers don’t have to wait so long in the system? It’s a very noble, worthy project. We try to go after projects like that.” JFCOM also plays a part in the project, which involves a wounded warrior physical disability evaluation system.

To model such a system, researchers examine inflows, outflows and everything in between to discover where soldiers hit bottlenecks in the system and how to rearrange actions to improve the process. The goal and focus are to reduce waiting time for all soldiers so they can transition to the next point in their careers and lives. Ezell describes the project as a “great place to put our unique skill set.” It also combines expertise from the hard and soft scientists with social scientists participating in the work. They have experience working with some of the more human aspects of hospitals, such as who visits the emergency room and pharmacy.

The impact on improving lives in the wounded warrior effort is evident, but Ezell says that his cluster and VMASC as a whole are “absolutely geared at helping people” in different ways. For example, the center is undertaking transportation work for the Commonwealth of Virginia to improve emergency preparedness. Personnel are looking at different alternatives to increase interstate highway throughput as traffic grows. In the Hampton Roads Hurricane Evacuation Study directed by the governor’s office, researchers are creating a dynamic model of routes for Virginia’s Hampton Roads area in the event of an evacuation due to a hurricane. The work uses selectable dynamic vehicle assignments and incorporates the impact of accidents and other incidents.


Crowd simulations present realistic agent-based crowd models that address the physical as well as psychological aspects of crowd behavior. Agent-based modeling of crowd behavior focuses on movement modeling, yet psychological interactions can drastically affect overall crowd behavior. Social scientists work with engineers at VMASC to develop models and simulations that represent human behavior.

Another project Ezell highlights involves bioterrorism research in support of Homeland Security Presidential Directive-10, which helps the government decide how to invest its biochemical funding. Ezell’s research also supports the Battelle National Biodefense Institute. For the bioterrorism work, researchers make assessments using risk analysis as the methodology to determine the likelihood and consequences of different bioterrorism scenarios. Each scenario has an output of a certain level of risk per agent. Researchers then look at risk mitigation strategies to decide how the government can obtain the best return on its investment for medical countermeasures.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the military can use modeling and simulation to determine results from different courses of action and to practice several times in simulation. This results in a better understanding of potential outcomes in real-world situations. Organizations can benefit from using models and simulations to test how effectively various investments reduce risk.

Much of the work focused on the military and homeland security overlaps, though distinctions remain. “There are some unique differences between the DOD and DHS,” Ezell explains. For example, the DHS is much younger and more distributed. Homeland Security officials can use modeling and simulation to their advantage by employing the tools to make informed risk decisions. By building models of catastrophic event scenarios, personnel can estimate the likelihood of various events occurring and the consequences, such as what happens if someone detonates an explosive at a particular location. Questions surrounding that scenario include the characteristics of the explosion, how it drifts through the air, what the plume looks like and the impact the blast has on glass in the surrounding area. Officials need models to determine those answers.

Sometimes solutions to military and homeland security problems result from successful projects in other clusters of VMASC. One of the center’s major accomplishments is the creation of a virtual operating room that allows doctors to train and interact with avatars that have personalities and bad hair days. Trainees can practice repeatedly in a “bloodless learning” environment, helping improve their success in the real world their first time out. The project could be pulled and used for medical training of combat doctors. Ezell says the medical cluster is “taking off right now and growing and growing.”

Success and growth in any cluster can benefit the others, and meetings often include representatives from military/homeland security, transportation and medical who share a good flow of communication. “It’s a nice matrix,” Ezell shares. However, despite the existence of multiple applications for some efforts, the clusters definitely have different research thrusts. Ezell says that the focuses are distinct but lend themselves to synergy among the groups.

As personnel at VMASC concentrate on current needs and projects, they are keeping an eye on the future as well. Next year, Old Dominion will stand up the first modeling and simulation undergraduate degree, making it the only school in the United States to offer undergraduate, master’s and doctorate degrees in modeling and simulation. The school encourages students interested in social sciences to consider studies and careers in modeling and simulation. Ezell says an undergraduate education in social sciences and a master’s degree in modeling and simulation, or vice versa, make a very attractive combination.

Moving forward, Ezell expects VMASC to continue conducting scholarly research and to push the envelope with modeling and simulation. The center also will continue to partner with industry, academia and government to promote economic development. In times of economic downturn, modeling and simulation offer a method for performing certain actions with less expense. Ezell explains it costs much more to build something that fails rather than to build a simulation and discover viability that way.

VMASC also is planning for the future and helping organizations save money by working on behalf of the federal government to develop modeling and simulation standards that can apply across all boundaries. Ezell illustrates the importance of standards by explaining about the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems from the 1980s and 1990s. All the protocols were proprietary, prohibiting the systems from communicating. People had to develop hardware and software separately, and processes were slow and cumbersome. Over time the SCADA systems matured, standards emerged, and the systems became less expensive to build and easier to interoperate. “That’s the beauty of having standards in modeling and simulation,” Ezell says.

Beyond the modeling and simulation work at VMASC, analysis plays a big role in the center’s efforts. “The types of problems that require a lot of thinking, a lot of conceptual modeling, followed by a lot of data collection and computational modeling—it’s what we do,” Ezell states. He explains that “analysis” in VMASC means dealing with substantial analytic problems that face the nation and the commonwealth. “To vertically integrate modeling, analysis and simulation like we’ve done with the relationships we have with industry, academia and government I believe is a very powerful and unique thing,” he says. VMASC solves problems for organizations, adding substantial layers to that with robust models that make the analyses richer.

Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center:
Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation:
Battelle National Biodefense Institute:


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