Suite of trainers for towed artillery systems blends realism, modularity
By Maj. Daniel Cowling and Mr. Joshua Zawislak
Engineers from the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC) and the Army’s project manager for towed artillery systems (PM TAS) have been collaborating on an innovative training package that will take an avatar-based gaming approach to training for the M777A2 and M119A3 towed howitzers.
The current overseas conflict has required Soldiers and Marines to deploy for extended periods in nonstandard missions, without their howitzers and performing jobs outside their normal military occupational specialties (MOSs). While this flexibility has been essential to managing a complex conflict, often it has eroded the warfighters’ core technical skills. This has been especially significant for the towed field howitzer community, for whom operation and maintenance of complex systems with both optical and digital fire control requires a high degree of technical proficiency.
This fact has not been lost on the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command capability manager for brigade combat team fires (TCM BCT Fires), who received correspondence from multiple parties in the field concerning lost proficiencies for field artillery. The correspondence highlighted the need for a portable training product to help MOS 13B Soldiers and 0811 Marines maintain their core artillery proficiencies in any environment. PM TAS, which manages the M777A2 and M119A3 howitzers within the Program Executive Office for Ammunition (PEO Ammunition) and received responsibility for managing the effort, worked with the field artillery community and the ARDEC labs to develop the project’s requirements and technical approach.
The result is that the Army is putting together a suite of trainers to address individual, collective and institutional training needs. The new trainers will provide Soldiers and Marines an interactive review of the proper procedures for safely and accurately performing critical crew tasks. The trainers derive from a common base set of government-owned software, whose architecture allows for the use of additional modules to customize the training focus.
At the core of this product line is a PC trainer that uses virtualization of tactical hardware to execute the same digital fire control system (DFCS) software that resides on the weapon platform. The PC trainer focuses on training operations for the chief of section and runs on a common commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) computer. The tactical software is packaged with an emulated environment and a user interface. The PC trainer user interface shows the tactical display and the howitzer via a 3-D model to simulate gun movement and firing.
The PC trainer extends into crew operational and maintenance training that uses 3-D game engines with a first-person, avatar-based task approach to critical MOS tasks. The product runs on COTS PCs with midrange graphics cards and provides collective training over a network connection. It immerses Soldiers and Marines in a 3-D environment—both the vehicles and surrounding terrain—that they can navigate. The user can manipulate the avatar’s hands to interact with the platform in the virtual world.
The system supports task-based training for single users on a stand-alone machine, and can be networked with up to three other users to provide collective training for howitzer crews. It embeds the PC trainer to provide the functionality of the tactical software and emulates the mechanical, electrical, hydraulic and other physics-based aspects of the weapon system.
Motion capture technologies capture howitzer crew tasks performed by military instructors. Artists re-create the tasks digitally for the trainers using the instructors as the basis for the avatars that students will use. ARDEC’s software engineers and its Gaming Interactive Technologies and Multimedia Team use 3-D scans to capture participants’ faces, and then use the virtual rendering to create lifelike avatars in current Army and Marine uniforms. Synchronization of video footage simultaneously with the recorded motion capture footage ensures that the animations in the training products are accurate and realistic.
The operational and maintenance training is delivered in two configurations for sustainment and classroom training. The sustainment product, targeted to units outside of a classroom, provides training that is embedded with fielded units. The classroom configuration supports institutional training by adding instructor control and monitoring to the sustainment configuration. A 3-D immersive trainer with content specific to multiple levels of maintenance is provided with the Lightweight Maintenance Desktop Trainer and Maintainer Computer Based Trainer. Scenario-based training, using maintenance forms and reports, leads a Soldier or Marine to perform the duties for remove/install, assemble/disassemble, troubleshooting and verification.
The innovation reflected in the trainers is the modular architecture and design of the training aids, devices, simulators and simulations (TADSS), separating the logic in external emulation from the game engine. The game engine is a thin user interface, and the interaction and behavior logic is allocated to external emulations. The architecture allows developers to independently change subcomponents’ visuals, independent of the logic, between release versions. For example, swapping in a new box with a different size or shape to replace an aging box with similar characteristics, because of a weapon system configuration update, would require an update to the 3-D model, but the emulator for behavior of the box could remain the same. This architecture approach addresses programmatic issues with updating the trainers to current weapon system configurations.
PM TAS, which manages the M777A2 and M119A3 Howitzers, and TCM BCT Fires, which is the user representative for the indirect fire community, refined requirements for the training products to reflect modernization of the weapons and changes in the force structure. The M777A2 Howitzer requirements derived from the joint U.S. Army, U.S. Marine Corps operational requirements document for the Advanced Towed Cannon System. The M119A3 requirements derived from the System Training Plan for the M119A2E1 Digitized 105 mm Light Towed Howitzer.
The core artillery tasks that form the basis for the 13B Crew Trainer are the result of collaborative efforts of the Master Gunners Division, the NCO Academy, the Field Artillery Marine Corps Detachment, TCM BCT Fires, Directorate of Training and Doctrine at the Fires Center of Excellence and PM TAS.
PM TAS and the product manager for self-propelled howitzer systems (PdM SPHS) in PEO Ground Combat Systems are using a common approach for training products for the M777A2 Howitzer, the M119A3 Howitzer, the M109A6 Paladin and the Paladin Integrated Management (PIM) vehicles. The M777A2 products will support the Army, Marines, Army National Guard and foreign military opportunities with Australia and Canada.
PM TAS has fielded the M777A2 PC Trainer for DFCS V3.1.1 and will field an updated trainer along with the tactical software fielding of DFCS 4.1.1. The other trainer products for M777A2 and M119A3 are currently under development. PdM SPHS has fielded the Paladin PC Trainer and the Paladin Maintenance Trainer products. ARDEC is developing the PIM training products in parallel with vehicle development and will use them in new equipment training of the vehicle operations.
Use of the PC trainers and the 3-D immersive crew and maintenance trainers promises not only to improve skills but also to reduce the costs of time spent on the actual weapon platform. It will enable training of the DFCS and interactions with fire direction computer operators without taking the howitzers out of the motor pool. Howitzer crews can train individually or collectively with the crew trainers to refine their roles and interactions required for fire missions, emplacement and movement of the tactical systems, all without expending ammunition and fuel or putting wear on the tactical systems.
Maintenance trainers provide an environment that is safe from electrical and mechanical hazards to the warfighter, allowing Soldiers and Marines to learn the interactive electronic technical manuals for troubleshooting and maintenance activities without risking damage to the tactical hardware. The institutional use of classroom trainers for operation and maintenance also reduces the potential for hazards arising from unfamiliarity.
The trainers can accommodate large classes with a broad view of the weapon system, and students can perform their training in parallel, thus improving the use of both students’ and instructors’ time.
Programmatic execution of real-time interactive trainers poses a number of challenges, including tight budgets for developing and sustaining the product. Using COTS computers partly addresses affordability concerns by eliminating the need to pay for engineering of specialized hardware. The training products’ use of government-owned, open-architecture software that incorporates existing tactical software sets the stage for cost savings through software reuse.
To remain relevant, training products must mirror changes in weapon systems as they evolve. The acquisition strategy and release of updates for the training products are scheduled to align with weapon system upgrades, maximizing the relevance of training.
In a climate of limited resources, TADSS for towed artillery systems provide a clear benefit by effectively providing critical training to Soldiers and Marines and by saving Army and Marine Corps funds for the future that otherwise would have been spent on training and sustainment.
For more information, contact the Project Management Office for TAS at 973-724-8868.
MAJ. DANIEL COWLING is an assistant PdM for PM TAS, Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey. He holds a B.S. in geology from Colorado State University. He is Level II certified in program management and is a member of the U.S. Army Acquisition Corps.
MR. JOSHUA ZAWISLAK is a software engineer lead in the Automated Test Systems Division of ARDEC’s Fire Control Systems and Technology Directorate at Picatinny Arsenal. He has a B.S. in computer science from the Stevens Institute of Technology and is Level III certified in systems planning, research, development and engineering – systems engineering.
This article was originally published in the July – September 2014 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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