Playing it for real

Technology that could prove indispensable for commercial use is on display in
a simulated battlefield staged in a military classroom. We explore the
application of synthetic environments 

Teaching employees to use a new piece of equipment has always thrown up a
myriad of challenges for the training professional – not least having enough
pieces of that new kit to go around. Given the likely cost of that new
equipment, can the organisation afford to assign say 10, albeit prototype
systems, to the training department?

The technology to surmount some of these problems has existed for some time,
however. Often used interchangeably with the term simulator tools, training in
a synthetic environment is a misunderstood expression, which might explain why
it is such an under-utilised training tool in the commercial sphere.

Simulation implies the use of real, live equipment within a simulated real
world. In a synthetic environment, the whole ‘world’, including the equipment,
is simulated.

The benefits of this approach are clear: training can take place before new
equipment is fully available, or for large numbers of staff for whom sufficient
equipment couldn’t be made available. It also allows students to go into free
play when training and not to worry about damage to equipment.

SciSys, part of the CODASciSys Group (formerly Science Systems) is a global
provider of IT services and develops synthetic training environments for bodies
such as the European Space Agency and the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

It is currently involved with Westland Helicopters in providing the
technology to train 73,000 servicemen and women in how to use the new Army
Bowman communication system (see box below) – a massive global training project
which will take up in excess of 500,000 training days between now and 2007.

However, the organisation is keen to point out that its high-tech image
shouldn’t put the commercial world off using the technology. It cites power
stations, rail systems and chemical plants, along with vehicle training for new
police cars, ambulances and fire engines as prime areas where synthetic environments
could play a major part in delivering training. What’s more, when combined with
the reach of the internet, the technology becomes a potentially powerful
training tool for global companies.

Getting it right

"The simulator was designed as one component of a training programme
for an organisation with global reach, where many trainees are located away
from the UK," explains Jon Davies, programme manager at SciSys.

"Conventional computer-based training (CBT) lends itself to distributed
training, but there are limits to what you can achieve with individual
training," says Davies.

"One of the great advantages of simple, cheap, synthetic
environment-based training is the opportunity to have a go and get it wrong and
to work with other people -wherever they are – to get it right. Many CBT
implementations don’t give you an opportunity to get things wrong, which limits
the learning potential."

Although the MoD is using the Bowman simulator across a standard local area
network (LAN), Davies does not forsee bandwidth or any other problems impeding
its use across a broadband internet connection.

"lt could work across the internet given appropriate connections at
each point," he says. "It exploits computer-gaming technology
designed specifically for multi-player internet games to provide much of the
connectivity between the computers."

Connectivity between trainees is one of the keys to the success of the
Bowman training programme – especially given that the new technology will
eventually be fitted to approximately 20,000 military vehicles, more than 150
ships and nearly 300 aircraft.

Perfect medium

Westland was already running a suite of advanced desktop simulations for
Merlin Mk 3, Sea King Mk 4, Lynx, UK Apache and Puma helicopter training, so it
had the right mindset for synthetic environment training. The nature and
make-up of Bowman also made it perfect for the medium, explains Peter Baron,
training manager for Bowman and Land Digitisation at Westland, which has been
contracted by GD UK to provide the training to the MoD.

"Bowman is primarily a menu-driven system, from the radio and fill
device displays through to the user data terminals and user control device, and
therefore lends itself to training on a PC-driven solution," he says.

Training takes place in custom-built classrooms and consists of theoretical
(instructor-led) and practical elements. The practical side of the training
uses the Bowman Communication Simulation System (BCSS), which emulates the
Bowman equipment and simulates the overall network of users who might be found
in a battlefield situation.

Trainees sit in front of PCs, wearing headphones, and are networked via a
LAN. As they operate Bowman, they can interact with other trainees through
pre-configured ‘real life’ training exercises. If they make a mistake and go on
to the wrong bandwidth, for example, they will lose radio contact with fellow
trainees. The simulator also supports applications designed to run on Bowman,
so it is as realistic as it’s possible to get without being the real thing.

In the future, the virtual world could allow the inclusion of what SciSys
describes as ‘autonomous entities’, such as computer-generated forces.

Putting even an entry-level figure on the cost of simulator training is
difficult because of the variables. In general, the cost will be primarily
determined by the complexity of equipment to be emulated and of other entities
in the synthetic environment, which means outside influences you need to know
about to use the equipment, explains Davies. "After that, developing
training scenarios is relatively simple – but the cost is dependent on the
number and complexity of these," he says.

In the case of Bowman, the alternative of providing real equipment in the
classroom simply isn’t financially viable. "The cost would have been in
the order of tens of millions of pounds," says Davies.

Synthetic futures

While it is difficult to predict the training landscape of 10 years’ time,
it’s easy to see why such technology could develop into a popular training
medium as the Nintendo generation infiltrates the world of work.

Synthetic environments and simulators running across the internet could also
take the concept of networked learning on to a whole new level. However, Davies
believes that although the virtual environments know few bounds, it is likely
to be the people and not the technology that holds it back when running it
across a wider network, such as the internet.

"If you construct an exercise in a simulated world that requires three
people to work together to achieve an aim, then you need to get three people
together at the same time – though not necessarily in the same place – to carry
it out," he says.

"So you would either need to have some co-ordination of who does what,
when (which would be difficult in a multi-site set-up), or you need to get such
a critical mass that there are often groups of people ready to do the same

This, of course, is where the training manager like you comes in.

Benefits of the bowman project  

– What is it? A new military communication system
designed to replace the in-service British Army’s Clansman Combat Net Radio
with a secure voice and data service and to form the foundation for a Digital
Network Enabled Land Battlespace. It’s one of the UK’s most significant defence
programmes and without the simulator, the cost of the Bowman training would
have been something in the region of tens of millions of pounds.

– Aim and scale of the training
To provide conversion training to in excess of 73,000 soldiers, sailors and
airmen/women to operate the Bowman fielded communication system. The training
is being given in 13-week slices (four per year) and, having begun in July
2003, will run to June 2007, which amounts to 500,000 training days.

There are currently 17 job roles within Bowman. Training will
peak around early 2006 when more than 1,200 students will be trained at more
than 10 UK sites and several across the world each day. It is a truly global
training project with several sites in the UK and others in Brunei, Canada,
Cyprus, Germany, Gibraltar and the Falklands.

– Is the technology delivering?
Feedback has been good so far.

"It’s a nice change from being one of a number of people
sitting around a radio trying to see what’s going on," said one student.

The MoD has already started internal validation for the initial
courses, and Peter Baron reports that Westland is already preparing to deliver
further training for Digitisation Battlespace Land Combat Infrastructure

"That will mean a second delivery of additional training
to the majority of those already Bowman-trained, over the same timeframe and at
the same venues," says Baron.

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