By C. Todd Lopez
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (April 20, 2011) -- Technology is advancing new learning opportunities for Soldiers in areas like mission training and even equipment repair.
Virtual Battle Space 2, for example, is now networked across multiple schoolhouses to allow students in different career fields to train together on a common mission in a simulated environment. Another example includes a 3-D touch-screen trainer to help Soldiers learn to diagnose faults on Army helicopters.
Both technologies were on display on the show floor at the 2011 Army Aviation Association of America's Annual Professional Forum and Exposition in Tennessee.
Soldiers from three schoolhouses, including those from the Army Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, Ala.; the Army Fires COE at Fort Sill, Okla.; and the Army Maneuver COE at Fort Benning, Ga., sat at laptops networked through a server as they conducted a simulated mission set in Columbus, Ga.
"They are doing a penetration against the Columbus police station," said Lt. Col. Craig Unrath, deputy director, simulation directorate, at Fort Rucker, Ala., Army Aviation COE.
Multiple flat-panel displays showed conference attendees what was being seen by the Soldiers who were participating. One screen, for example, showed the view from inside an Apache helicopter. Another screen showed the view from an unmanned aerial system. Most of the participants were Army captains enrolled in their Captains Career Courses at the participating COEs.
The software driving the simulation, the VBS2 system, isn't new -- it's been around for years now. But in March, the three school houses connected formerly separated installations of their software over T1 fiber cables to allow simulated missions to be conducted between students at the separated school houses.
"The objective is to long-haul distribute this between these installations so we don't have to come together to do an exercise," Unrath said. "We can do it dynamically, quicker, not having to do a big deliberate planning process."
To get the same kind of training just 20 years ago, the students would have had to physically come together to do the training.
"It'd be a full field-training exercise, where aviation, infantry, armor and artillery would all have to go to the field and it would have been a live exercise," Unrath said. "So it's a massive savings on teaching that type of collective training and communications, command and control."
The simulation was also augmented with information coming off wireless iPads -- "We believe wireless is the way of the future for us," Unrath said. "We've got iPads replicating current Army battle-command systems, like Command Post of the Future, Blue Force Tracker, and the Air Warrior Electronic Data Manager -- which is the navigation device they use in the actual cockpit."
Capt. Michael Ferriter, a student at the Maneuvers COE Captains Course, was one participant in the simulated mission. He's a proponent of the technology that's helping him hone his leadership skills.
"I'd take this 'as is' now to train my platoon leaders and give them a good practical application before going to a training center before deploying," he said. "I think it helps you to tie multiple assets so that you can focus on the big fight -- when controlling a company with mortars and aviation."
Capt. Scott Davis, one of Ferriter's team members in the simulation, is also a student in the Maneuvers COE Captains Course. He said the newly networked implementation of VBS2 helps when learning to work with officers and Soldiers from other branches.
"It really helps you build the communications skills," he said. "You're talking over radio with the fires guys, with the aviation guys -- you have to really clarify your purpose and what you want them to do."
Unrath said the technology is in line with what the Army hopes to achieve under "Army Learning Concept 2015," an effort to improve the Army learning model by "leveraging technology without sacrificing standards," according to the Army's Training and Doctrine Command.
"It's TRADOC's big charter on how to train this generation of leader we have today -- today's leaders are mobile phone, wireless-device kinds of guys that are attached to that wireless world. We have to figure out how to train that generation that's captured by that. Virtual training and first-person-shooter game technology is doing that."
Unrath also said the training the long-haul linked VBS2 simulators provide to participating students is realistic for what they will see in theater.
"It gives us the real type of training for what these guys are going to do when they go to theater," Unrath said. "It's quick, it's dynamic, and it gets the small teams talking just like they are going to be operating in Afghanistan."
The networked simulation was only one example of how concepts under ALC 2015 are being implemented. In the same booth, another Soldier demonstrated new technology that allows Soldiers to learn virtually how to diagnose faults in equipment on an AH-64 Apache, before actually having to turn a wrench on that aircraft.
The technology, a virtual immersive environment, is designed to capitalize on the skills new Soldiers bring to the Army, and that ALC 2015 hopes to access.
"The Soldiers who come into the Army today have very little hands-on experience with turning wrenches -- but they grew up in a generation of digitization, and they have a lot of experience with computers," said Lt. Col. Mark Teixeira, director of the Department of Training, Plans and Evaluation at the U.S. Army Aviation Logistics School at Fort Eustis, Va.
The simulator uses photorealistic images of the Apache and allows Soldiers to virtually approach the aircraft from all sides, and open panels to access what's inside.
"This is 100-percent like what's out on the hanger floor or out on the flight line," said Staff Sgt. David Dunlap, an instructor at the United States Army Aviation Logistics School, Fort Eustis, Va. Dunlap was demonstrating the system for conference attendees. He also uses the system to teach students at the schoolhouse.
Dunlap's students include armament avionics electrical repairmen for the AH-64 Longbow Apache.
Dunlap touched a screen to open a panel on the simulated Apache, revealing the extended forward aviations bay where all the "black boxes" are located.
"The Soldier has to know where all the components are -- it's not a step-by-step guide," he said. "He has to use his electronic manual and his knowledge of the aircraft to know where to go."
By just touching the screen, Dunlap was able to remove the "cannon connectors" from a component, and then use an on-screen multi-meter to diagnose faults in the system -- checking for continuity and resistance. The faults in the simulated system are set up by instructors for the students to try to find, by using their knowledge and guidance from their manuals.
The system is about teaching procedures, so students can be comfortable before touching an actual aircraft. Dunlap said the students now go through a full day of simulated procedures on the trainer before actually getting their hands on the Apache.
"They go from here to the hanger floor the next day and are more comfortable with their trouble shooting as far as leaning how to trouble shoot and as far as pulling off the components," he said.
Some tasks on the simulator are simpler than on a real aircraft, but Dunlap said the time saved by training first on the simulator is great -- and Soldiers, he said, are loving it.
"For the digital-age Soldier coming in -- the kids are growing up in that digital age -- they like the scenario and like seeing it computer-generated," he said.
Dunlap said the trainer has been used for about six months now, and so far, about 200 Soldiers have cut their teeth on the system before trying what they've learned on the actual aircraft.
Right now, it's only the modernized targeting designation system that is programmed into the trainer. Plans include adding both the avionics and communications suites and eventually, the entire aircraft.