Simulators have long been touted as a significantly less expensive option for training military personnel compared to live activity using the real platform. Indeed, this holds true when considering a multi-million-dollar weapon system such as a tank, fast jet or warship. But as simulators – particularly the full-motion variety – have increased in sophistication, so have their absolute costs. This has left a gap at a lower level in the market that many major simulation integrators are now seeking to fill.
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One problem is that military personnel have become so accustomed to the high-end, bells-and-whistles approach to simulators that anything obviously less capable becomes a problem.
‘At the moment, pilots won’t accept a simulator that doesn’t give them 99%, or as close as possible, to reality. If a button doesn’t look OK or feel like the real thing, they won’t use it because it’s negative training,’ said Chris Hepburn, a simulator systems engineer in BAE Systems’ air sector. Although BAE uses full-dome simulators, it is also seeking to give customers lower-cost options without impacting on quality.
‘While some of our customers are very interested in augmented reality/virtual reality, they are cautious,’ he said.
However, AR/VR does have some significant advantages over conventional simulators: ‘You can look over your shoulder and look out [of a cockpit], which you can’t do in a dome. We’re heavily researching these things.
My view is that traditional domes have peaked. They are changing to 4K and 8K, but they’re not improving in a way where a pilot says: ‘Wow, this is better.’
‘As technology gets better, my personal view is [AR/VR] will replace full-motion simulators, which are very expensive to buy and to operate.’ said Hepburn. For the price of a single dome, customers can acquire four or five lower-cost trainers located in the same room, or portable models that can provide training at different sites.
‘My view is that traditional domes have peaked. They are changing to 4K and 8K [display definition], but they’re not improving in a way where a pilot says: “Wow, this is better.”’ Hepburn believes that as haptics, wider FOVs and improved projection systems come along, VR will supplant today’s dome systems.
It is understood that BAE is talking to several potential customers regarding AR/VR facilities.
While VR is evolving, it still has some way to go. A gamer would almost certainly be delighted by the quality offered by a modern VR cockpit, but a military pilot has higher criteria. Presented with the same set-up, Hepburn noted, ‘a pilot would say: “That’s not what I feel in terms of g-forces when I touch this button.”’ It is vital for pilots that they build up muscle memory so they can operate controls almost without thinking about it.
One of the advantages of VR systems, according to Hepburn, is that as the technology becomes popular in the consumer market, manufacturers would continue to push its boundaries and those advances would benefit the military. The resulting systems would be considerably cheaper than today’s full-motion devices: ‘My feeling is that, over the next two years, you will see UK forces using [increasing amounts of] VR for air, land and sea training.’
Market research undertaken for BAE Systems in this field foresees portable, mobile VR systems, for example using the Oculus Quest headset, having the biggest growth potential. That could bring benefits for smaller countries with limited budgets, which may be able to afford this type of training for the first time.
On the low-cost front, MetaVR has demonstrated a joint fires training system using deployable elements. The trainer utilises MetaVR’s notional Boeing F/A-18 Block III Part Task Mission Trainer (PTMT) cockpit and a Deployable Joint Fires Trainer (DJFT).
The portable system gives deployed teams the opportunity to conduct training at short notice, with the company explaining that trainees can start running scenarios within 30min of delivery.
It uses MetaVR’s Virtual Reality Scene Generator-rendered Fallon Range Training Complex (FRTC) for joint air-land training in support of peer and near-peer engagements. The FRTC is a USN facility in Nevada with four separate training ranges and an integrated air defence system consisting of multiple real and simulated radars.
MetaVR’s system enables joint terminal attack controllers (JTACs) and forward observers (FOs) to train with F/A-18 pilots in a rapidly changing scenario environment that includes enemy and friendly land forces, as well as hostile airborne targets.
The F/A-18 Block III PTMT is a prototype to-scale physical cockpit simulator designed and built under an internal company development programme. It was designed as a low-cost solution, using representative aircraft hardware that can be configured for training on 4.5th-generation combat aircraft.
The pilot is able to see their own hands and interact with the cockpit controls in the physical environment, with immersion in the synthetic environment providing the out-the-window view.
The modular DJFT, meanwhile, comprises three or more networked stations – for the aircrew operator, the JTAC/FO role player and the instructor – each contained within two-person portable ruggedised cases. The system contains the hardware required to run dynamic, full-spectrum JTAC/joint fires training scenarios, including laptop and communication systems.
A scenario begins with a peer-to-peer or near-peer armoured company-level operation. The JTAC will pass target information to the F/A-18 pilot for neutralisation, and while the jet approaches the target, a hostile anti-aircraft threat will unmask, entering the scene.
At this point, the scenario will shift to a suppression of enemy air defence operation, with the JTAC calling in surface fires to neutralise the new threat and allow the F/A-18 to prosecute its original target. Active EW and air defence will be employed by adversary forces to attempt to thwart this.
‘This training capability was developed by a joint fires subject matter expert at MetaVR in response to what we see as a serious gap in the military training market,’ W Garth Smith, MetaVR’s co-founder and president, said.
Boeing, meanwhile, is offering the Low-Cost Immersive Display (LCID), which is specifically aimed at government customers that may not have the budgets for full-motion simulators. It describes the LCID as filling the gap between VR devices and expensive WSTs.
The company says that LCID has been developed to provide 90% of the performance of projector-based wide-FOV WST visual systems at 10% of the cost and with 10% of the size footprint. It is designed to be particularly applicable to squadron-level training and multi-ship manned threat stations for tactics development simulation.
To keep costs down, LCID uses higher-end consumer TVs with high dynamic range and 4K resolution, driven by PC game engine graphics processors. This combination provides a realistic day and night training environment, says the company.
Additionally, a display panel provides an expanded FOV at near eye-limited resolution and has compatibility with most fighter/attack simulator cockpits. Additional elements include a simulated head-up display and helmet-mounted cueing.
In the VR arena, Boeing offers government customers a solution that includes a headset and haptic gloves to immerse the student in a 3D visual environment.
Here, the entire cockpit is virtual, but a physical stick and throttle are used, since replicating the tactile response of those devices is difficult. The pilot interacts with the cockpit by reaching out directly to press buttons, turn knobs and flip switches. Other aircraft and the ground environment can be depicted, and multiple stations may be networked for formation flying or other coordinated activities.
Boeing also makes use of the technology to train maintainers on the aircraft. Given Boeing’s status as an OEM, there is added value, it claims, in further aiding operators by training pilots and maintainers alike on systems unique to the customers’ needs and budgets.
Another training company making inroads in the low-cost market is CAE, which unveiled its Sprint Virtual Reality Trainer in December.
This is designed to make use of modern digital technologies for self-paced learning and consists of a VR headset for out-the-window viewing, haptics for instrumentation physical feedback, physical flight controls (joystick, throttle and rudder pedals) and the company’s Medallion image generator. CAE said at I/ITSEC 2019 that Sprint delivers a higher-fidelity and more realistic virtual environment than traditional VR trainers, including the ability to see and read cockpit instruments.
Sprint can also incorporate a ‘virtual coach’ with audio intervention and correction for trainees, as well as the company’s Rise performance grading and assessment tools. This suite of capabilities uses COTS element, resulting in what the company described as an extremely small footprint.
In Europe, the UK’s Inzpire launched its Targeted Fidelity Simulator (TFS) in 2019. The company said that TFS is designed to provide ‘a fully customisable alternative to traditional full-motion simulators which are typically costly, necessitate large spaces for installation and do not always deliver the required training need’.
Alongside these industry offerings, some armed forces are going it alone when it comes to low-cost trainers. The USAF, for example, announced in January that a VR system for maintenance training on the C-130H and J Hercules is under development.
In conclusion, modern technologies are enabling lower-cost training systems to be developed more rapidly and efficiently than hitherto, and such devices look set to take increased market share in the future.