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Snowdrifts and Skis: US Army Updates Land-Nav Trainer

Jun. 27, 2014 - 01:47PM   |  
By LAUREN BIRON   |   Comments
The latest version of the US Army's land-navigation trainer adds an altimeter and better fidelity.
The latest version of the US Army's land-navigation trainer adds an altimeter and better fidelity. (US Army)
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The training system allows an instructor to keep tabs on a whole class as they move through a virtual woods. / US Army

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COSTA MESA, CALIF. — The US Army has upgraded its land-navigation simulator, which helps teach a variety of outdoor skills, to take advantage of a new version of its underlying battlefield simulation system.

That system, Bohemia Interactive’s VBS3, replaced the company’s VBS2 in March as the lead platform of the Army’s Games for Training Program, used for everything from mission rehearsal and planning to skills training.

At the end of May, developers working for the Army’s Training Brain Operations Center Simulation group (TBOC SIMS) finished updating the Land Navigation Trainer to use VBS3’s additional capabilities and better fidelity. New versions have been produced for Forts Lewis (Washington), Jackson (South Carolina) and Knox (Kentucky); Schofield Barracks (Hawaii); Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (Alaska); Garrisons Grafenwoehr and Baumholder in Germany; and the US Military Academy at West Point, New York. The trainer is also being integrated into this summer’s ROTC Leadership Development and Assessment Course, the program that inspired TBOC senior scenario developer Brian Hall to create the trainer.

The Land Navigation Trainer allows soldiers to learn and practice basic skills: how to operate a compass and map, track pace count, plot points, and get to a specified location. It can then help students tackle more advanced skills such as reading terrain and planning routes. The trainer tracks student movements around the course, allowing instructors to pinpoint deficiencies immediately or during a post-exercise review.

The switch to VBS3 has allowed developers at TBOC SIMS to further customize the trainer for the specific terrains around various Army locations. For example, the Alaska version, which already incorporated virtual snowfall, will likely add more mountainous terrain, allow soldiers to travel on skis, and mimic real hazards by naturally accumulating snowdrifts or avalanche areas. The most recent release also added an altimeter so that soldiers can monitor elevation and learn to foresee problems.

Hall, who is an employee of CGI Federal, said similar expansions are planned for Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and other installations.

Tightening budgets are driving the Army toward increased simulation, but initial results indicate that putting students into virtual environments during the early stages of their land-navigation training is helping them to learn faster. The number of scientific studies is limited, but anecdotal evidence is mounting; for example, whole classes have passed the live land-nav course on their first attempt, a rare feat.

“The way to juggle that [budget pressure] with limited resources is to rely on virtual and constructive and gaming simulations to get that proficiency before you ever start up one engine, fire one round, set foot on one training course,” said CGI Federal’s Mike Haith, the lead on TBOC Strategic Plans.

With the Land Nav Trainer showing early success, TBOC developers are eager to see other ideas put to use. Hall has developed an underwater navigation trainer that can be downloaded on MilGaming but so far sits largely unused.

The designers also have a beta version of a mounted navigation trainer that teaches soldiers how to give directions to their drivers.

“In a trainer, most people train to drive, or they train to walk around the woods, but nobody really trains to navigate a city,” Hall said. “Nobody’s really training navigation in a vehicle in this manner.”

These dedicated virtual trainers must be downloaded, but the developers have also created a browser-based version, using the Unity game engine, that allows anyone with internet access to play. They expanded their Unity platform to include a call-for-fire simulator called the Observed Fire Trainer.

Hall, a former artillery soldier, noted that much live-fire training consists of watching others drop rounds. The virtual trainer, by contrast, allows you to practice the regimented steps that lead to a call for fire as long as you like, and gives you a score analyzing their skills. (Between sessions, you can watch various videos produced by the SIMS group on various skills such as successive bracketing; in early June, they added one about targeting moving objects.) Planned improvements to the trainer include a live tracking feature and a scoreboard to encourage competition and practice.

“If we can track how they’re progressing live, it also means we can intervene live,” Hall said.

And in the not-so-far-off-future, that intervention could come from a computer tutor. While intelligent tutoring systems are still young and challenging to design, the instant feedback without the need for a live body holds the promise of individualized, convenient learning at a low cost. ■

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