Canadian Forces train for combat with virtual reality

The Canadian Air Force will soon have access to ultra-realistic threat simulation to aid the training of pilots for warfare, thanks to a joint effort between two technology companies.

Under a one-year subcontract to Sierra Technologies Inc., Ottawa-based PRIOR Data Services Ltd. will develop tactical engagement display software for the Canadian Forces’ Surface Threat Electronic Warfare System (STEW) at the air base in Cold Lake, Alta. This system will provide realistic ground threat radar signals for the aircrew’s electronic warfare effects and reaction training.

The system is made up of five threat emitters that can be reconfigured to replicate a range of threat systems, is responsive to jamming and manoeuvres, and automatically records the engagement for later playback and aircrew debriefing on the exercise.

On a Windows NT 4.0 operating system, PRIOR used Rational Rose as the object-oriented design tool, Microsoft Visual C++ 6.0 as the software development environment, Microsoft Visual SourceSafe 6.0 for configuration management, Vireo Driver::Works as the device driver kit and MapInfo’s MapX OCX for its GIS input.

According to Rod Henderson, a project software engineer at PRIOR, operators of STEW will be able to see the targets on the screen and assign a threat to an aircraft.

“These are the actual electromechanical emitters that are out on the field. With each one of those, it has a radar range and a weapon range, and a whole slew of weapons from which to choose.”

The map display uses a raster rather than vector image, and is about 52MB in size. The user needs to be able to zoom 32 times, Henderson said.

“Which is quite a bit of data – that’s why the map had to be as big as it was. They have to be able to zoom quite quickly, and pan, recentre and zoom out,” he explained.

“We had concerns about whether we would be able to handle a map that steep – we were actually quite worried about it. But it turns out it works quite well.”

The system had to be built to supports loads of 450 targets coming from the radar, which were represented as symbols that could be rotated to indicate their orientation.

“So we actually had to process those things as they were coming off the synchronous serial link. Every 9.6 seconds all of those targets (on the radar scan) would be updated.”

Prototyping the GUI gave a feel for how the finished product would look. PRIOR then developed the infrastructure, and one of the interfaces. “Then we took that interface down to a very detailed level to ensure that the whole mechanism was going to work from soup to nuts,” Henderson said.

“We also had data objects that were in the system that had monitoring mechanisms on them that set up events — so when one interface changes, the other interfaces get notified that the data has changed.”

Bob Dean, director of Canadian projects at Buffalo-based Sierra Technologies Inc., said the project will include five different platforms that will simulate various warfare threats.

“Those will all be tied together and operated from a single console on the base itself, which is about 50 miles away from the range, and then the systems are spread out over the range, which is 50 miles wide and 100 miles long,” he said.

“Everything is software-controlled and run through data links. They are also putting thermal imaging cameras on there so they can also run operations at night. So these are quite sophisticated little systems.”

Dean explained the pilots will actually be flying the planes as they are being trained with the new systems. This increases the reality of the situation and allows a better chance of surviving a real attack, he said.

“The pilot, and his equipment on the aircraft, won’t be able to tell if it’s one of our simulators or it’s the real thing. They have to use all the tactics that they are being trained with, then they are graded on how well they do,” he said.

“If you were describing it to people who didn’t understand it, you would basically say it’s probably the most expensive – but best-built – laser tag game in the world. You will actually get to play with as close to the real thing as you can get, without actually being in combat.”

Maj. Erik Ronning, an Ottawa-based major in the Canadian Forces and the project manager for STEW training, said the Air Force had used U.S. instruction facilities in the past, but wanted something “in-house and in-country” in order to keep costs down and provide greater flexibility.

“We had identified a deficiency in training our aircrew against surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft artillery threats. And we found the use of foreign electronic warfare ranges was becoming expensive,” he explained.

“Now we’ll be able to control things more ourselves, because when you go to a range as a visitor, you don’t have control over the equipment. This way we’ll be able to fine tune things.”