Technology supports special forces

U.S. fighter pilots and the military’s Special Forces are preparing for missions in Afghanistan and elsewhere using advanced visualization technologies that provide amazingly accurate virtual models of buildings, cities and terrain.

The U.S. Navy has deployed a 3-D visualization software tool developed by Bethesda, Md.-based Lockheed Martin Corp. called Tactical Operational Scene (TopScene) aboard several U.S. Navy aircraft carriers that are now supporting raids against terrorist targets in Afghanistan, experts said.

TopScene, which runs on commercial, high-performance computers designed by supercomputer specialist SGI, integrates real-world satellite imagery, handheld photography, and video with Digital Terrain Elevation Data to produce realistic 3-D pictures that are accurate to within less than 1 meter. Pilots and soldiers are able to use the system to fly or walk through a virtual representation of the exact location to which they are being sent to conduct operations.

“They order imagery like they do ammunition,” said Bob Mace, an executive at Fairfax, Va.-based Anteon Corp. who serves as deputy program manager for mission rehearsal at the Navy’s TopScene program office in Patuxent River, Md. Mace demonstrated the system here at the first SGI Defense Summit, sponsored by SGI and seven other IT companies.

The system was also used during the 1999 war in Kosovo. And an imagery and terrain database of Yemen was built in only two days after terrorists detonated a bomb that nearly sunk the Navy destroyer USS Cole, Mace said. Since then, TopScene 4000 systems, which run on SGI Infinite Reality high-performance computers, have become standard equipment on every aircraft carrier, Mace said.

Special Forces, which are operating on the ground in Afghanistan, have a 3-D urban visualization tool at their disposal called RealSite. Developed by Melbourne, Fla.-based Harris Corp., RealSite was used by security forces to plan where to position monitoring equipment and personnel during the Summit of the Americas in Quebec in April. It has also been used to prepare for the Olympics in Salt Lake City and to study the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York.

Harris developed the imagery database for the Olympics security planning in one week and produced virtual walk-through scenes of 3,000 buildings in New York in two days, said Joe Nemethy, Harris’ RealSite product manager. Harris is currently working with the city of Orlando on security planning and with the Pentagon’s National Imagery and Mapping Agency to produce models of every major port facility in the U.S., said Nemethy.

“Collaborative visualization” is the key to teamwork, said SGI chairman and CEO Robert Bishop. He said these technologies could also benefit private industries, including the manufacturing, energy, medical and media industries.