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New Trainer Lets Students Stare Down at Virtual Sea

May. 20, 2013 - 03:45AM   |  
By Lauren Biron Staff writer   |   Comments
The Full Mission Bridge Simulator 2 at the Surface Warfare Officers School lets students look down alongside the ship when docking or interacting with nearby vessels.
The Full Mission Bridge Simulator 2 at the Surface Warfare Officers School lets students look down alongside the ship when docking or interacting with nearby vessels. (U.S. Navy)
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Instructors monitor students' performance in the Full Mission Bridge Simulator 2. / U.S. Navy

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Inside a three-story simulator in Newport, R.I., students are learning how to navigate the seas and the world of immersive ship training.

The Full Mission Bridge Simulator 2 is the newest installation at the U.S. Navy’s Surface Warfare Officers School. There, an immersive bowl trainer allows students to look down from a replica of a ship’s bridge when docking or interacting with nearby vessels, a first for the Navy virtual trainers.

“It allows you to walk out to that bridge wing and look down over the side and still see that simulated environment in a very accurate capacity that is tuned specifically for what it would look like on the bridge if you shift to that eyepoint,” said Scott Burlingame, deputy director of the Surface and Expeditionary Warfare Organization at the Naval Air Warfare Center in Orlando, Fla. “What we bring forward here is a lot more capability to do very detailed training when we are in a close-aboard situation, either to the pier, the oiler or other tactical kind of situation.”

The trainer, which entered final testing in April, will train lieutenants, commanders, lieutenant commanders and department heads on ship handling, precision navigation and other areas. The first courses moved to the new sim will be the tactical officer deck course and shiphandling exercises.

Students on their way to large surface vessels such as aircraft carriers will get to simulate the class of ship they will eventually serve on.

“The great thing about the simulator is we can call up wherever their ship is going to be homeported,” said Bud Weeks, a retired Navy captain who now directs navigation, seamanship and shiphandling at SWOS.

Using databases to replicate both the location and device that service members will interact with is rapidly becoming the norm in simulation for all branches of military. Personalizing the training puts students into realistic scenarios that they are likely to encounter and prepares them before they ever arrive.

Trainees using the FMB 2, for example, can practice navigating in and out of harbors using markers and sea buoys or pulling alongside other ships for replenishment operations. The simulator is highly configurable, and controllers can manipulate everything from the number of ships in the channel and the weather to the time of day and the current. In many cases, the simulator can actually provide better training than the real world simply because of its flexibility.

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“If you were reliant on live training, who knows when you’re going to get a day with pea-soup fog and 30-knot off-the-dock wind,” Burlingame said. “With the use of simulation, you can put them in much more challenging, specifically targeted scenarios in a much shorter period of time than you could ever do if you were reliant on the real ship.”

At 18 feet tall and 36 feet across, FMB 2 takes up three floors of a building. The wide space is necessary for projection systems to create the immersive sensation and simply to hold the replica bridge that students walk around on. Large simulators add technological challenges to the display system, something that confined, stationary systems (such as those found in most flight simulators) don’t face.

To deal with potential distortion as officers-in-training move around the bridge, the simulator changes the display to reflect the new viewpoint. Students call out commands to the virtual helmsman as they move about the bridge, and the computer shifts the display to match that new location.

“This is going to be a powerhouse when it comes to shiphandling training because of the ability to shift around the viewpoint and give the student different perspectives of the ship,” said Lt. Ethan Reber, who works with training and simulation at SWOS.

The $4.1 million project harnesses technology that has been around for a while but has not been affordable until recently. With major development costs out of the way, most expenses now would include the display systems, upkeeping databases and finding space to put such massive simulators.

Nevertheless, as computing power increases and necessary technology drops in price, more of these immersive sims may be on the way. As operating time for the Navy is cut back due to budget and resource constraints, simulations are also likely to bear more of the responsibility when it comes to keeping students proficient.

“I think we’ll see more of them. I’m definitely hoping so,” Weeks said. “I sincerely believe that as time goes on and the Navy realizes what a super tool this is, as they backfit other installations where this training is required, they will go the extra mile as far as the money is concerned and put these in.”

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Possible locations could include San Diego, Hawaii and Norfolk, Va. These locations have simulators currently, but none with the look-down capability.

“It is unique within the Navy,” Burlingame said. “There are some commercial maritime organizations that have been employing this type of technology in various capacities, but within the U.S. Navy, this trainer up at SWOS is a unique asset.”

The simulator can also be used to teach proper procedures for handling problems with the ship’s systems, such as steering, engineering or propulsion malfunctions. Trainers have the option to pause scenarios and discuss best courses of action or potential mistakes. Developers also took care to replicate weapons systems, meaning the trainer can be used for tactical operations.

In fact, the simulators at SWOS will soon be able to talk to one another and conduct multiship tactical exercises. By integrating software and upgrading the Full Mission Bridge 1, a cylindrical-display trainer in use for roughly 10 years, trainers will create a software baseline that serves as a common language.

Limitations on the sim largely involve making sure models replicate what happens in real life. There is a growing sense of trust for training tools and the simulations they run — and a hope that such sims can be used to test various situations in the virtual world before ever doing them in real life.

This could extend beyond training to test the feasibility of, for example, transferring a heavy aircraft engine onto a particular portion of a carrier. Proving feasibility in the simulated world could provide an extra level of certainty before trying potentially risky procedures for real.

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