As simulation software improves, agencies are turning to the technology to improve training and save money.
A widespread anthrax attack on Manhattan would give health officials just hours to treat stricken victims.
Responders would need thousands of pallets of Ciprofloxacin delivered to the city via trucks and aircraft for distribution to the sick, all within 24 hours.
Federal, state and city officials would need to coordinate with private shipping companies, such as FedEx and UPS, to make the effort possible.
Conducting an exercise to prepare for such an event is expensive and risks damaging valuable drugs. In summer 2009, rather than performing a physical exercise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Strategic National Stockpile held a virtual exercise using simulation software called Stockpile in Motion Across the Nation.
Hundreds of people participated in the exercise that simulated the movement of several thousand pallets of supplies using nearly 200 trucks and 11 aircraft. CDC officials were so satisfied with the exercise that the agency extended Lockheed Martin Corp.’s contract to perform more simulations in the future.
As federal agencies’ budgets become tighter and the quality of simulation software continues to improve, the technology will become a more integral part of civilian and defense organizations' information technology spending, industry experts say.
“We were able to enable the CDC to perform an exercise that was more complex than they were ever able to do before,” said Angelo Prevete, a program manager at Lockheed Martin’s Simulation, Training and Support unit. “Using all real things, they were never able to do a full exercise because it is just too costly. As a matter of fact, if they were to run a physical exercise that we ran in July with simulation, it would have cost them $15 million more.”
Recently, Lockheed Martin and Microsoft Corp. entered into an intellectual property licensing agreement that allows Lockheed Martin to further develop Microsoft’s PC-based simulation software called ESP.
The visual simulation software platform is used for tasks such as training warfighters for battle. The technology allows users to operate realistic vehicle models, such as a Boeing 747-400, that incorporate real-world physics.
The agreement provides Lockheed Martin with access to the ESP technology portfolio and enables the company to build simulation solutions. Lockheed Martin’s software development teams plan to extend ESP's capabilities in a new suite of innovative solutions that will evolve beyond flight training to include ground and civil agency applications.
It requires about 800 proficiencies and skills to master flying an airplane, said Chester Kennedy, vice president of engineering at Lockheed Martin’s Simulation, Training and Support unit.
Training service providers like to break down all those proficiencies to specific elements for training. For pilot training, some of those elements can be learned via PC-based training, while others need to happen in an expensive flight simulator, and still others require a real aircraft.
Improvements to simulation software are making it possible to move some of those cockpit-only elements to a PC, Kennedy said.
“Certainly, you’d prefer to take the tasks out of the airplane and put them on that full mission-training device as opposed to burning fuel and putting hours on the airplane,” he said. “If I can then take some of those tasks and move them down to the lower levels of fidelity, for example, with Microsoft's ESP, that reduces the amount we have to use more expensive training.”
The newest PC-based simulation software is so powerful that it can provide training for a wider array of tasks than was possible just two years ago, Kennedy said. That evolution in the software’s capability will likely continue, he said.
Another reason PC-based simulation has a bright future is that past work can be the foundation for new advancements.
“There have been a number of platforms, primarily aircraft, which have been modeled to support Microsoft Flight Simulator over the years,” Kennedy said. “Without having to completely reinvent those models, we are able to pull them into the ESP environment and reuse them. So what that does is give us a broad base of platforms for which we can do quick turnaround of development of these medium-fidelity simulations.”
And the PC-based technology is catching up with the expensive motion platform simulators.
“Solutions built on Microsoft ESP can engage users in immersive experiences with very realistic environments,” said Chris Cortez, general manager of strategic programs at Microsoft and a retired Marine Corps major general. “ESP models the entire world and will allow Lockheed Martin’s developers to easily add their own content, objects, scenery, simulation functionality and scenarios to create custom training solutions.”
In CDC’s bio attack exercise, creating a realistic environment was the goal, Lockheed Martin’s Prevete said.
CDC’s simulation training program was developed specifically for the agency. It is based on a variety of military training programs that have been adapted for civilian applications. It replicates the operations of warehouse distribution and receiving and simulates ground and air transport vehicles carrying medical countermeasures and other medical supplies to state governments.
It also provides an after-action review function so that CDC can determine the effectiveness of its distribution network. The two-day exercise took place during a 34-hour period.
The training experience was realistic partly because many of the role players involved were outside CDC’s emergency operations center, Prevete said.
For example, in an actual emergency, private companies would help deliver medicine. Other organizations, such as the Health and Human Services Department and the U.S. Marshals Service, also would participate.
As the simulation unfolded, the experience at the emergency operations center was exactly the same as if supplies were being moved by trucks, Prevete said.
“When you make a phone call from the emergency operations center, somebody needs to be on the other side of the phone, so we had a real person there,” he said.
The simulation technology directed the role players on what to say and how to respond.
“We gave all the role-players, like 50 or 60 of them, pop-up reminders 15 minutes prior to when they were supposed to do something,” he said. “It told them what they are supposed to do, what the expected response was.”
And similar to military training exercises, Prevete said he thinks virtual exercises might be combined with physical operations in the future to further improve an event’s realism.