Training to go for Marines
University is helping make portable simulators easier to use
- By David F. Carr
- May 26, 2008
Even as the Marine Corps begins using the Deployable Virtual Training Environment (DVTE) to offer laptop PC-based virtual training for infantry, helicopter, tank and amphibious operations, the Marines are asking the University of Central Florida laboratory that helped design the system to make it easier to use, particularly for instructors.
In March, the Office of Naval Research awarded the university a a three-year, $7.3 million contract for research to improve DVTE’s tools for setting up new training scenarios, gathering and analyzing the results, and giving feedback to service members who participate in virtual training sessions.
The university’s Institute for Simulation and Training worked on a technology demonstration project that led to the development of DVTE and now has been charged with helping develop the next generation of DVTE.
“Our research is on how to make simulators into training systems,” said Denise Nicholson, director of the university’s Applied Cognition and Training in Immersive Virtual Environments (ACTIVE) laboratory and principal investigator for the project. The lab usually works on cutting-edge projects and researches technologies that might not find their way into the field for several years. But DVTE is aimed at near-term practical results, Nicholson said. The plan is to deliver one incremental software upgrade per year during the next three years.
As its name suggests, DVTE is meant to be deployable, meaning that Marine units could take it with them when they go into the field. Although so far it’s mostly being employed at training facilities on the regimental level, amphibious units have reported using it for as long as 60 hours per week aboard Navy ships.
“It’s great for training when you otherwise couldn’t,” said Maj. James McDonough, the Marines’ DVTE program officer. Virtual training allows service members to practice decision-making and memory skills, such as knowing what to do if the squad encounters an improvised explosive device, McDonough said. “They should be able to come to the right decision much quicker in practice because they’ve done it over and over in a simulation.”
A DVTE training session can include as many as 33 networked laptops, each operated by a service member playing a role such as infantry, tank or helicopter operations, and the Marine Corps is deploying 1,000 laptops loaded with the software. Although it’s no substitute for live training, DVTE allows the Marines to practice teamwork, tactics, standard operating procedures and decisionmaking skills on a virtual battlefield.
However, the system has some shortcomings, McDonough said. Trainers need better tools for sorting through the data recorded during a training session to identify mistakes and provide better coaching. The tool can replay a scenario and isolate the actions of each participant, but such a review is time-consuming, McDonough said.
Ideally, the system should automatically flag critical mistakes and automate more of the after-action report. “We can tell weapons effects — where a bullet started and where it ended,” McDonough said. “So we can tell when certain rules are being violated, with fratricide being a big one.”
In other words, it shouldn’t take a manual review of the recordings to determine when one player’s virtual bullet passes through another player’s virtual skull because, “that’s just a geometry issue,” he said.
DVTE comprises several simulation programs developed by many universities, military institutes and contractors. The core simulation software, known as the Joint Semi-Automated Forces ( JSAF), was developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and is used in several other military training and research projects. DVTE evolved from a research and technology demonstration project named Virtual Technologies and Environments that created individual simulators for landing craft, tank, helicopter and infantry operations. It then showed how to network them together to simulate multidisciplinary scenarios such as helicopter pilots providing support for infantry operations or tank convoys.
The deployed version of DVTE has excellent simulation capabilities, but setting up a new scenario is more complicated than it should be, limiting the use of the system. Nicholson said. “The people who run training for the Marines have a lot of subject- matter expertise, but they are not advanced computer technicians,” said Roy Stripling, who oversees the project for the Office of Naval Research’s Information Technology Division. “If the tools are hard to use, there is a good chance people are not going to use them.”
In addition to making the system easier to use, the research project will provide tools to help instructors decide when and how to provide feedback, tweak scenarios to meet training objectives and reinforce skills that an individual trainee lacks, Stripling said. DVTE runs on Windows-based laptops for training stations in combination with a Linux-based JSAF administration console for the exercise controller. The administration console includes a graphical user interface, but creating or modifying a scenario is still challenging because of the number of menus, configuration screens and variables.
While giving a demonstration at the ACTIVE lab in Orlando, Fla., research scientist Larry Davis showed how he could modify a desert warfare scenario with precise control over environmental factors such as temperature, wind speed and direction, and precipitation.
“See, I just made it snow,” Davis said, chuckling. “It’s snowing in the desert.”
Instead of such godlike control, trainers need the ability to construct realistic scenarios more quickly, Nicholson said. Ideally, a trainer should be able to concentrate on the training scenario and objectives without becoming an expert in computer simulation technology or requiring a lot of specialized computer support.
“Right now, you’ve got to send somebody like me out there to support this,” Davis said. He was also able to make other adjustments, such as moving a group of tanks from one location to another in the virtual world, but he added that despite formal training and working with the JSAF module for one and a half years, he probably has mastered no more than 40 percent of the system.
“He has to think about the whole scenario, know the training scenario and how to bring it to life, and then he has to figure out how to translate it into the tool and build the world,” Nicholson said. She said she hopes the next generation of the software will allow the trainer to start with a generalized scenario, such as tank convoy operations in the desert, and intelligently assist with the construction of the scenario, placing equipment, actors and obstacles in the virtual world and setting training objectives for the exercise.
“Instead of presenting all these advanced options for wind direction, humidity, temperature, maybe we can have them specify the training objective and the firing environment — sandstorm, windstorm, whatever — and give them the option to pick at that level,” Nicholson said.
In part, this would be a matter of establishing templates for different kinds of training. Another strategy might be to do some filtering of options so a trainer would only have choices that are relevant to a given scenario. In other words, snow might not even appear as an option in a desert warfare scenario.
In addition to making the administrator’s console more userfriendly, Nicholson said she hopes to tap into a huge body of research conducted at the University of Central Florida and other institutions on embedding instructional strategies into simulations. “We’ll be leveraging the best strategies from that.”
For example, part of her team’s work will be to prototype software that would coach instructors on the feedback they should give exercise participants. Ideally, the system should be capable enough that Marines in the field could use it for ad hoc exercises without a trainer and get performance feedback directly from the software.
DVTE will also be expanded to simulate additional tasks, such as the operation of unmanned aerial vehicles, which are growing in importance as reconnaissance and weapons systems. Developers are working on integrating UAV operator consoles with the simulations so trainees can work with the real equipment rather than a laptop-based approximation.
The ACTIVE facility has already produced a prototype of software to translate between the Joint Architecture for Unmanned Systems protocol for controlling unmanned systems and the High Level Architecture protocol for communication between simulators.
Nicholson said the researchers are also trying to maintain flexible systems architecture that will be able to accommodate additional elements, such as monitoring trainees’ heart rates or even electrical activity in their brains for indications of confusion or stress. Current research could lead to the incorporation of those features in a future version of DVTE.
In addition to giving the trainer greater insight into errors that might be stress-related, Stripling said he can imagine training specifically designed to measure a Marine’s reactions under stress when it would be important to determine whether the simulation succeeded in inducing the desired stress level.
Although simulations cannot substitute for live training, DVTE training can prepare warfighters by letting them act out a scenario in the virtual world before they must do it in the real world, Nicholson said.
“Marines have a limited amount of time for training, so you’d hate to have the first hour, half-day or even day wasted on the basics,” Nicholson also said. To that end, the Marines have created detailed terrain maps for places such as the Twentynine Palms training facility in California, so DVTE users can get to know its layout in the virtual world before going there in person, McDonough said. Maps of cities in Iraqi, such as Fallujah, can also be loaded into the system so Marines can practice combat zone operations before they arrive, and McDonough said the goal is to make those simulations as realistic as possible.
“You’d like the street corner to look exactly like the one that guy is going to be patrolling,” he said.