The virtual world has long been a theatre for the war experience. Battle plans are staged with virtual real- ity technology and simulators are actively used to train military personnel on how to pilot aircraft or handle weaponry. Even civilians can indulge their combat fantasies through highly realistic commercial games like Call of Duty or Full Spectrum Warrior. Beyond these high-tech dress rehearsals for battle, immersive virtual reality technology and computer-based simulation is also catching on for a host of new military applications, from more realistic training methods to bringing efficiencies to how complex military systems are designed and deployed.
The military’s rising interest in virtual reality technology from an engineering standpoint boils down to a simple matter of cost and safety. It’s far cheaper to test conceptual designs — for example, for weapon systems or maintenance platforms — without having to build a physical prototype and then potentially ship it overseas to see how it holds up on the battlefield. Critical military equipment can also be developed and sent into the field much more quickly if feedback is solicited in the early stages of development, rather than catching potentially lethal design flaws closer to production. Moreover, by showcasing and testing conceptual designs in a virtual world, military engineers and government contractors can explore their design challenges more fully, unencumbered by the cost and time constraints of the traditional, more iterative process.
Safety concerns are another driver for the accelerated use of virtual reality technology. Live training exercises can be expensive, not to mention dangerous, to soldiers, as well as to the environment. And with the current generation of soldiers raised in an era of video games and the Internet, most are just as comfortable, if not more so, learning from a digital experience as they would be participating in real-world training scenarios or in face-to-face design reviews.
In part, the use of virtual reality has grown in the military (and in business) because the technology is now finally accessible at a manageable price. Less than a decade ago, virtual reality work had to be done in dedicated facilities outfitted with high-priced supercomputers, wall-mounted display screens and sophisticated accessories, which meant it was relegated to research organizations, high-end military operations or corporations with big-ticket technology budgets. While these types of facilities remain in widespread use today, a meaningful virtual reality experience can now be accomplished on a desktop PC using head-mounted displays, 3-D glasses and other easy-to-come-by accessories for a reasonable price point of tens of thousands — not millions — of dollars.
“The cost of entry into virtual reality is much easier today — you don’t have to spend a half-million dollars to see if you get any benefit, you can spend $25,000 and see the results and step it up if you want to,” says Mark Bryden, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Iowa State University, home to the Virtual Reality Applications Center, which does research in virtual reality and visualization technologies and holds contracts with both the military and corporate business.
Keeping Clutter at Bay
VRAC, in fact, has been researching the potential of virtual reality systems for the military for years. An initial project employed visualization to replay combat scenarios, allowing military commanders to experience firsthand why certain decisions were made and enabling them to do more effective post mortems on tactics and strategy. VRAC’s visualization capabilities, avatar technology and large model expertise have also been deployed by the military for virtual prototyping applications to accelerate the design of key aircraft and other military equipment.
Another on-going project is to create a virtual reality control room for operating the Army’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), according to James Oliver, professor of mechanical engineering at Iowa State University and the director of VRAC, which is now home to the C6, an upgraded, six-sided virtual reality room that boasts a stunning 100 million pixels, currently the world’s highest resolution. The current control environment for UAVs is demanding, requiring multiple operators to handle a single mission. With a grant from the Air Force in 2005, VRAC was charged with building a multimodal interface for future command and control operations using virtual reality technologies. The idea is to showcase the UAV in the surrounding airspace and terrain accompanied by all the information collected by instruments and cameras. This creates a more interactive and intuitive interface, allowing a single operator to control multiple UAVs.
There is also continued research in applying virtual reality technology to battlefield command and control operations. In the old days, commanders mapped out strategy on sand tables and it would take weeks to affect any changes. The modern version of that primitive command operation is big control centers with lots of information screens. While high-tech on the surface, Oliver suggests these systems are still pretty cryptic. “There are lots of information screens, but it’s disparate information from different sources — usually numbers, 2-D maps and (longitude and latitude) coordinates,” he says. “The idea is to integrate everything together to keep the clutter away, allowing decision makers to explore what’s possible.”
In other research work at VRAC, Professor Bryden’s group is tying the physics of simulation to virtual reality technology in an effort to streamline the design process. In a typical development process, a design is handed off to special analysts who perform Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) or Finite Element Analysis (FEA) simulation work to test the concept — a process that takes weeks and is often disconnected from any subsequent design changes. From there, physical prototypes are built and, based on their performance, more design changes may be made and more FEA, CFD or other analysis work done. Tying simulation to the immersive virtual reality environment greatly accelerates that process, Bryden says, not to mention, allows non-simulation experts to quickly recognize patterns.
Although not a military client, Deere & Co. is putting VRAC’s research to the test. Visualizing CFD simulations in an immersive virtual reality environment is helping it design a more productive cotton picker — one that can move volumes of cotton faster without having to increase engine horsepower. “With an immersive 3-D display, you can see things faster and you can include stakeholders into the decision process,” says Jerry R. Duncan, Deere’s manager, university R&D relations. “They can understand the findings rather than be told it should go this way.”
Deere, like the military, sees a big future in virtual reality technology for product design, thus has invested millions in the technology. Using virtual reality technology to evaluate prototypes lets the company consider many different design alternatives because it doesn’t have to build physical prototypes, Duncan says. Deere recently leveraged the technology to evaluate how to change the placement of a fuel tank on one of its tractors. As a result, they were able to run through a number of design alternatives simply by pushing a toggle button and a varied mix of stakeholders were able to quickly come to consensus on what direction to go in. “In a matter of minutes, we were able to flash through what would have been six or more physical prototypes,” Duncan says. “While we didn’t make the decision that day, it saved weeks of time … and hundreds of thousands of dollars in value just that day.”
Virtual reality technology also has a role beyond upfront design, as a better method of training on complex systems. General Dynamics C4 Systems, for example, employs virtual reality equipment to help soldiers test new equipment such as Land Warrior Systems, which are packs that plug them into the battlefield network. The virtual reality technology allows the soldiers to rehearse their mock missions so they’re better prepared for the physical test and it also allows commanders to watch how the soldiers perform with the new equipment. “While the soldiers are going through the test, they get data from the system as to where they were, where their weapons were pointed — everything that took place is recorded,” says Ralph Whitney, director of training and simulation systems for General Dynamics C4 Systems, which develops a range of communications applications for the military using virtual reality technology.
This immediate feedback is all the more critical when it comes to matters of the military. Within Research Development Engineering Command (RDECOM), the use of virtual reality technology is just part of a Six Sigma overhaul to bring maintenance platforms much more quickly to soldiers in the field. Traditionally, it took RDECOM close to six years to get a satisfactory maintenance platform into the field. Today, with lean product development processes, virtual prototyping and a completely new and accelerated way of gathering user requirements, the group has been able to reduce the cycle to two years.
“In military applications, time is critical — the bad guys are shooting you up and you need to fix the problem now, not six months from now,” says Joe Kleiss, Marine Corps’ special projects team leader at RDECOM.