Story and photo by Joe Lacdan
Army News Service
Carrying only a backpack and a drone, Soldiers could capture and eventually re-create entire sections of forests and steep mountains.
They can map 3D data from the rough, dry wasteland of the Mohave Desert, the dense rainforests of Hawaii or the rocky, landscape of woodlands. They can even replicate the detail of a bustling metropolis.
And with this data, they can capture intricate details down to the species of trees. That data will be optimized and aggregated with data from other geospatial sensors to build a digital environment Soldiers could use to train for war or duplicate an operational battlefield.
A tedious process that once took weeks can now be achieved in three hours: within that time, Soldiers can fly a drone within a one-square kilometer area and visualize the environment in 3D run-time.
Wherever Soldiers wish to hone skills or where commanders choose to send them, Soldiers will soon have the capability to simulate that environment at their home stations.
“One of the things we identified early on was the existing systems often require that you bring several Soldiers to a central location to get training,” said Col. Marcus Varnadore, project manager for the Synthetic Training Environment Cross-Functional Team. “So what we’ve challenged industry with is creating systems that can actually go to the point of need; go to where the Soldier is actually training.”
One World Terrain, a pillar of the Army’s synthetic training environment, will give Soldiers a tool that could improve readiness by providing training in an accurate, realistic representations of theater environments.
It would help achieve the vision of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and then-Secretary of the Army Mark Esper to build a more lethal force, by providing Soldiers skills at a more frenetic pace.
“It’s rapidly expediting the capability of being able to capture the terrain and creating the terrain environment,” said Kyle McCullough, lead researcher at the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California. The ICT works in conjunction with the Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center to research and develop immersive technology advancing realistic, synthetic human experiences.
The capability is being developed at an opportune time in the Army, as the service prepares for possible large-scale ground-combat in environments that contrast starkly with the operations in the Middle East. Soldiers soon must prepare to battle in forested areas and massive urban centers.
The technology will also be used to eventually help Soldiers on the front lines map terrain on the battlefield.
While connected to command and control systems on the battlefield, they will be able to receive rapid updates provided by the OWT program.
“You won’t have to rely on pre-existing data or possibly older data,” McCullough said. “You can get brand new data when you’re actually in a deployed environment, and so a commander would have access to the latest state of a battlespace.”
The Army expects to reach initial operating capability for OWT by the end of fiscal year 2021 and full operational capability in fiscal 2023.
The cross-functional team assigned to develop the technology has CFT members collocated with the Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation in its home base at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and in the ICT.
Army ICT researchers have been working on the finer points of the program, including how to transmit the data over a secure connection efficiently.
OWT data collection and processing can be broken into five phases.
In the collection phase, a Soldier uses a backpack kit that contains a tablet that runs on special software. Soldiers must simply find the area of environment where they wish to train.
The kits have been distributed to 200 Marine Corps units, and some units within the Army and Navy.
Once they define the area they wish to train, they use the tablet to draw an extension point on a map. The drone will automatically hover over the area and begin the data collection process.
Army units can collect data not just for training but for intel purposes and battlefield planning.
“Whether it’s an area that they want to train on, an area that they want to plan on, an area that they just want better…cognizant awareness of, it can apply to anything like that,” McCullough said.
The user collects data from multiple sources including still images and underwater topography. Then the users begin the data processing phase, where they transform the collected data into information that can be used in a simulation.
The process includes dividing the data into categories such as road surfaces, structures and vegetation.
In the third phase, data must be stored securely in a repository and then optimized for distribution to locations where Soldiers require the data — at a forward-deployed location or at their home installation.
In the fourth phase the developers have run into a difficult obstacle, as rapid delivery of data has proven to be challenging. Soldiers in deployed locations often do not have access to a reliable internet connection, which could further delay the data transfer.
“We’re able to process very efficiently with very little human intervention,” McCullough said. “Some of that data can be gigs to tens of gigs in size. The biggest hurdle that we’re facing actually getting this into a higher level of operability, is actually figuring out how to distribute that data efficiently.”
In the fifth and final phase the Soldiers apply and use the data in their training using lightweight virtual reality goggles that transmit the live 3D map allowing them to interact with the simulated 3D environment.
“It’s one thing to have a whole bunch of data,” said David Krumb, associate director of the ICT’s mixed reality laboratory. “It’s another thing to be able to understand what that data means and employ it in a simulation.”
The data has already been used by units at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, California. The NTC offers Soldiers a wealth of data collection from its desert environments to unique independent facilities.
The researchers said Soldiers who have tested the One World Terrain have responded positively.
“A lot of the Soldiers really enjoy it,” McCullough said. “They enjoy the ease of it, and they enjoy how quickly they’re actually able to turn around the data.”
By the time the service achieves FOC for One World Terrain, it plans to also support training in the synthetic training environment across each of its six warfighting functions: mission command, movement and maneuver, intelligence, fires, sustainment and protection.