WASHINGTON — Before cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., hit the land navigation course for real, they’ll do it virtually, and with a seasoned teacher by their side.
That’s the idea behind the upgrades planned for West Point’s land navigation simulator. Before the next batch of cadets arrives in June, the sim will add new teaching features to develop route-planning skills, as well as new imagery to better reflect the real world.
The Virtual Battlespace 2 Land Navigation Trainer-West Point Course is a simulation developed by the Training Brain Operation Center (TBOC), part of the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. The current version has been formally incorporated into the West Point curriculum after a trial period, and teaches students to correctly plot points, operate a compass and map, track their own pace count, and navigate to a specific spot. The virtual training teaches cadets fundamentals of land navigation before they ever go out on the course.
TBOC is working with the academy’s professors and simulation center to add new features, including terrain guides, route planning and intelligent tutoring. Students often struggle with smart orienteering choices, such as planning an easier route rather than driving toward the end point with the straightest line.
To counteract the problem, the new version of the Land Nav Trainer will incorporate a route guide that can show new users the “expert route.” A green avatar can guide the cadet along the expert path, giving the user a chance to see what makes a good route and compare the terrain to the map.
“You need to come up with a plan when you go out for land navigation,” said Victor Castro, simulation manager at West Point’s simulation center. For cadets with no orienteering experience, seeing the optimal route and the landmarks that make it successful could help them learn faster than fumbling around in the woods, whether virtual or not.
To provide extra guidance, TBOC is also creating an intelligent tutoring system that would pop up dialogue boxes triggered at certain locations or landmarks. In addition to correcting students who go off course, it could also reinforce correct routes by emphasizing checkpoints or landmarks that cadets use to navigate.
Col. Michael Hendricks said the initial method of training was having students find certain points. However, newer methods rely on increased feedback and the method used to get to those points.
“I think the guided approach will be much more successful,” said Hendricks, a professor in West Point’s department of geography and environmental engineering. “You can increase the training quite a bit.”
Because the Land Nav Trainer continuously tracks cadet location in the simulation, Hendricks said it becomes easier to test different navigation techniques, such as following a ridge or compass skills. Instructors can key in when students have difficulty, but if they are occupied with another student, the intelligent tutor could also step in to get a cadet back on course.
One other form of guidance in the program is a new terrain guide, a vertical bar showing terrain in meters that will hopefully train cadets to recognize how high they have climbed. A common problem was for students to think they had journeyed much farther than they had.
“You get that visual of what a 30-meter hill actually looks like,” said Brian Hall, the senior scenario developer for TBOC’s land navigation trainers.
Hendricks also requested that the new version of the simulation more accurately reflect the various speeds when traveling over different terrain (such as up a slope or through a swamp) or using a compass. Cadets trying to get a precise reading on a compass will travel significantly slower than when they are using a rough compass or traveling freely. The game now reflects this by causing cadets with the compass open to move at half speed. When learning skills to navigate to the right place at a precise time, a simulation that doesn’t reflect the effects of terrain on movement rates could teach the wrong thing, Hendricks said.
Simulations like the Land Nav Trainer have drawn some fire from those who think cadets should strap on packs and learn trial-by-fire on the course.
“When you only have two or three days to train someone, a fair amount of those people just completely waste their time. They have no idea what they are doing,” Hendricks said. “It sounds good to just learn from hard knocks. But we don’t do that on the firing range. We don’t just say, ‘Here’s a weapon. Here’s some bullets. Figure out how to put them in there and just fire away.‘“
The overall trend is one of using more simulations to fill in gaps, provide additional safety and provide more practice during short training periods.
“We’re using simulations to augment classwork,” Castro said. “That’s a direction we want to go, because now we can provide multiple lessons in a shorter amount of time.”