Giving the equipment a test drive

For all who have been watching the events unfold in Afghanistan, there has been a quick realization that military equipment is extremely expensive. One lost B-1B bomber and the States is out US$280 million. Though the Canadian Armed Forces don’t spend anywhere near as much as the Americans, there is still the desire to cut costs and speed up acquisitions whenever it is possible.

Part of the difficulty with military-based acquisitions is that little of it is purchased off the shelf. Even the F-18 fighter used by the Canadian Air Force does not have the exact same configuration as one used the U.S. Specific instrumentation requirements, such as a radar warning receiver, must be purchased, installed and tested.

“In the past, traditional acquisition activities required – especially for military procurements – to get into what we call the build, test, build cycle,” said Lieutenant Colonel Murray Haines, project director for the TAMSS project.

“You specify the characteristics of an equipment solution, someone would build a prototype, you would install that in say in an aircraft…then you would test and evaluate it,” he explained.

“The build, test, build (method) is fairly equipment- and labour-intensive and tended to take many years and, in major projects, millions of dollars,” he said.

“There are (also) things you may not want to do with a real helicopter due to danger such as evaluating the performance characteristics with one engine inoperative,” Haines said.

“You can do it in a live scenario, but you may want to (first) do it in a simulator to have an understanding of the (flight) characteristics.”

technology helps

The TAMSS project, short for Tactical Aviation Mission System Simulation, is a three-year Defence Research and Development Canada (an agency of National Defence) initiative to create a distributed simulation facility to be used for the testing, training and acquisition of equipment to be used in the Griffon tactical helicopter.

The 90 plus CH-146 Griffons provide direct support to land forces and, in the next few years, will provide direct support to operations with respect to surveillance and reconnaissance, Haines explained. The military needs to assess the operational requirements of the CH-146 for the next five to seven years, especially its need to provide direct operational support to the army, he explained.

In order to achieve this, the new equipment will need to be tested.

xwave, the Halifax-based IT solutions provider, which has worked with the military before (see ComputerWorld Canada, “New technology on horizon for Canada’s air navigators,” Nov. 17, 2000, page 3) was brought on board to put the system together.

Several requirements made the implementation a challenge, not the least of which was to create a distributed computing solution so pilots would not constantly be forced to come to Ottawa to test out new equipment.

The military also wanted the system to be HLA compliant. High Level Architecture, an U.S. Department of Defense modelling simulation system, allows users to have much more control over the data transferred in simulators. Prior systems, such as distributed interactive simulation, gave all users all data whether they needed it or not.

“If you are in an F-18 in an air-to-air engagement and there are tanks driving around on the ground 15,000 feet below you, you probably don’t care about what those tanks are doing,” said Murray Gamble, Ottawa-based vice-president of the Human Factors Engineering Group and simulation architect for the TAMSS project.

“With HLA, you can (decide to) not subscribe to that tank information.”

building the system

The network tactical simulator (NTS) runs on Windows 2000 professional and is comprised of nine PCs with dual Pentium lll 1GHz processors. Each machine also has 1GB of RAM.

“One of the great drivers for the TAMSS program was low cost and the use of COTS components,” Gamble said.

Though the solution is being created with commercial off-the-shelf components, it is far from your run-of-the-mill flight and systems simulator. One hurdle to overcome was the fact that pilots needed to view a completely realistic scene out of the “window.” A video arcade this is not.

“The out-the-window scene is very important, especially when you consider the helicopter pilot is flying at 10 ft off the ground at 100 knots,” Gamble said.

The solution was to have three PCs simultaneously projecting onto one screen, so the pilot gets an almost 180 degree horizontal and 40-degree vertical view.

And while the computers and graphics cards (GeForce 3) were off the shelf, the software running the simulations was definitely not.

eNGENUITY Technologies Inc., a Montreal-based company which creates virtual software for, amongst other things, the aerospace and defence industries, supplied three different components for the TAMSS project.

Loaded on to the computers were VAPS, STAGE and HELISIM. “With the VAPS (virtual application prototyping systems) product you can create the behaviour and the look and feel of the (entire) cockpit,” explained Deborah Dexter, Ottawa-based executive director with Advanced Systems Marketing International Inc. which takes care of sales in Canada for eNGENUITY.

“It is a software tool that allows you to build your own representation of any complex display.”

STAGE, which is an acronym for scenario, toolkit and generation environment, is a software tool to create complex military tactical scenarios.

“Say a pilot takes off with 10 enemy aircraft around, with STAGE you can emulate the behaviour of those 10 enemy aircraft, you can assign weapons’ systems to them and sensors and the STAGE product will take care of how those enemy aircraft behave,” she explained.

The final software piece is HELISIM, not surprisingly, a helicopter simulator.

“It is a very high-fidelity model to simulate the aerodynamic behaviour of a helicopter,” Dexter said.

The net result is that a pilot flies the Griffon using HELISIM as the model for its flight characteristics, the VAPS display shows the pilot cockpit functionality while STAGE drives the entire backend tactical environment.

Using TAMSS, pilots can try out new equipment and features without the military having to purchase the equipment first.

“If we prove the concept with the Griffon, then definitely there is the potential to expand it into other aircraft and also platforms other than aircraft,” said Don McClure, director of sales with xwave.

“There is definitely a ground swell to move toward (simulation based acquisition) both here in Canada and in the U.S., and with the NATO hi-tech players,” he added.

The first of three network tactical simulators is already installed with two to follow in the spring of 2002. All three will be networked to allow pilots in separate locations to train together.