When a Canadian soldier in Afghanistan detonates landmines – like the young sapper Kip who dismantled bombs in academy award winner ‘The English Patient’ – it’s a tug between life and death. A tiny mistake could mean instant death.
‘The English Patient’ is set in the time of the Second World War. Back then, to defuse a bomb, combatants relied on pliers, and their ability to recall classroom lessons, to nip the right wire.
Thankfully in present times, the technology used by our men and women overseas is a tad more sophisticated.
Today, a Canadian soldier in Afghanistan tackling a landmine would be able to turn on a ‘ruggedized’ personal digital assistant (R-PDA), and browse through an electronic training manual, which contains – not just words – but a 3D image of the landmine.
He or she would then be able to view and interact with the simulated “landmine” on the PDA from different angles – even viewing its internal components – before making a move.
Soldiers in Afghanistan may encounter up to 70 different types of mines. All are lethal, including the ones mounted on stakes 20-30 cm above the ground, and can be set off by a trip wire hidden on ground. Having information in advance on their PDAs gives soldiers an idea of what they may encounter, said Tom Stewart, master warrant officer, Canadian forces J3 engineer operations.
Benefits of simulation technology have reached our soldiers thanks to an alliance between the Department of National Defense (DND) and Vancouver-based Ngrain, a provider of interactive 3D training software.
Information soldiers can access on their PDAs includes the Canadian Forces Landmine Database (CFLD). It contains information on landmines found around the world, along with a detailed description of their features, appearance, locations and how to dispose of them.
That’s a tremendous amount of information right in the pocket of the soldier – information that increases his or her effectiveness in dealing with landmines, said Stewart.
He says placing the CFLD on the PDA has opened the door to loading many other databases onto the device. In addition, as the landmine database has been designed to be easily updated, information on new mines can be added and existing records can be amended as necessary.
On the ground, soldiers access information through “knowledge objects”, said Paul Lindahl, president and CEO of Ngrain. A knowledge object is an interactive 3D model or scene that visually communicates information about the equipment, machinery or assembly it represents.
Ngrain develops 3D knowledge objects from the military training manual. By clicking on a knowledge object on their PDA, soldiers get all the information they want, said Lindahl.
For instance, he said, a soldier in Afghanistan has to assemble a satellite dish used in communication. The dish comes in three suitcases. If the soldier has never witnessed the dish being assembled before, he or she can quickly refer to a 3D training manual on a PDA – clicking on the knowledge object that has information on satellite dishes. That click provides access to a wealth of information in the form of animated designs, hyperlinks and additional reference material.
“Setting up 3D knowledge objects is easy,” said Lindahl. They are created by subject-matter experts who are military trainers using an Ngrain product called Producer. “Our experience has been most subject-matter experts are not familiar with 3D. So there is no programming or scripting involved in setting up knowledge objects. If you can operate Microsoft Office products, you can use Ngrain Producer.”
Once these objects are set-up, they can be inserted into courseware. Much like Acrobat Reader or a Flash player, this is a “viewing” technology, said Lindahl.
He said most soldiers fighting overseas belong to the video games generation. “They are used to computers and an interactive approach to learning. So if they are taught in 3D, they immediately absorb that information.
He said Canadian soldiers have been using knowledge objects and 3D training on their laptops for four years now. With the new contract, they will be able to access knowledge objects on their PDAs. This access, he says, “saves 40 per cent of the total time” that would normally be spent looking for such information in other places.