Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD -- When it comes to training, realism is a key component to prepare Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines for the potential scenarios they may face during a mission.
The Army Futures Command's focus on a synthetic training environment (STE) has provided more training resources to the warfighter than ever before, from augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) to traditional training in a physical location. In some cases U.S. Army specialists require highly sophisticated training facilities due to their unique missions and highly hazardous work.
Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, is home to the U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) School which owns the Department of Defense's only live, toxic chemical warfare agent training facility offering realistic training scenarios to CBRN warfighters. Since the facility's opening in 1999, the Chemical Defense Training Facility (CDTF) team has endeavored to create a more immersive training experience for warfighters resulting in greater knowledge retention, the development of muscle memory, and a reduction of fear by building trust in our military equipment -- all goals of immersive training.
Several years ago, the CDTF Director crafted a vision for the context of the toxic training space which resulted in a new look and feel for the facility designed and visualized by the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) Chemical Biological Center's Advanced Design Manufacturing (ADM) facility.
The CCDC Chemical Biological Center's Advanced Design Manufacturing facility specializes in a variety of industrial manufacturing capabilities including electronics, 3D printing and metalworking. For this project, ADM's Interactive Software & Visual Media shop would support the CDTF's vision due to their past experience in conceptual rendering.
Each year thousands of CBRN warfighters complete training at the CDTF, putting their skills to the test with actual toxic chemical agent. The CDTF also welcomes many international partners to complete the training. With advances in available technology, increased demands for training requirements and greater warfighter expectations, it became clear that it was time for a paradigm shift of the toxic training program at the CDTF.
"The U.S. Army's move from counter-insurgency/terrorist threat-based training to large scale ground combat operations necessitated the retooling of our training program if we were to remain a relevant part of our national strategic CBRN enterprise readiness," CDTF Director Daniel Murray said. "As the Center of Excellence for CBRN defense within the Department of Defense, the redesign of the CDTF was essential to maintain our edge with regard to providing the most rigorous and challenging training possible in the area of Counter Weapons of Mass Destruction (C-CMWD) missions."
The Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defense (JPEO-CBRND) provided the funding for the redesign project under its mission to provide affordable capabilities to the joint force.
Composite photography and 3D rendering were used to transform each target location from a seemingly simple brick and mortar room into a realistic, near-peer location warfighters may be deployed.
"Through research into current threats and a review of current intelligence data, we focused each target area on specific near-peer threats," Murray said. "The context of each target area helped drive the design and experience of each location."
According to Lail, the context for each scene was based around real-life scenarios warfighters could find themselves in during a mission to address a chemical agent threat. Based on the story of each scene, the design team began the monumental task of researching geographic locations described for each room, diving deep into the minute details of what a crumbling building looks like after an explosion, the textures of rock, steel and glass, as well as perspective, which would pose one of the biggest hurdles to the team.
"Early on in design, we realized that misuse of forced perspective could cause trainees to experience distortions in the images as they walk through the space detracting from the realism," Lail explained. "Using virtual reality (VR), we were able to make design changes to correct the perspective issues we saw, walk around the space virtually, and then go back to the computer to make further refinements."
To combat the issues associated with perspective, walls were illustrated using a combination of orthographic projection (no main point of perspective) and single point perspective (gives the feeling of looking down a city street).
In addition to the expert design team, the Center leveraged its expertise as the nation's leader in chemical and biological threat solutions to help the designers understand what a near-peer chemical production facility actually looks like. Through classified briefings from the Center, the design team was able to gain insight on the details necessary to really bring the scenes to life.
"We would have been at a loss had we not been a part of the Center," Lail said.
With the design team in Maryland and the customer in Missouri it became apparent that regular image design reviews or even video conferencing reviews wouldn't work, so the team decided to use virtual reality as the primary means of reviewing designs for the customer.
At each project milestone, virtual reality goggles were uploaded with the current version of each target location. CDTF leadership would don the goggles and tour each location virtually while on a conference call with the development team.
"The ADM team was incredible to work with," said Joshua Schein, JPEO-CBRND project manager. "They were very responsive to our changes and consulted our team throughout the project to help us understand the impact our requested changes would make to the design."
After several iterations, the end result is second to none in terms of realism and detail. Stepping into each target location, it's difficult to sometimes tell where the physical boundaries of the room end due to the high resolution of the images. Many elements in the images were developed through 3D rendering tools like those used to enhance feature films with computer-generated imagery.
Warfighters are immediately immersed in the location and the mission during their training session.
Each target is also packed with physical features and training aids to further enhance the training. From crates and oil drums to Humvees and even a real subway train car, the attention to detail creates a convincing scenario environment.
Murray has received a lot of positive feedback from both from special operations and conventional units that have had the opportunity to use the facility.
"The comments have been consistent with regard to 'these scenarios we can't get anywhere but at the CDTF ��-- they're awesome!'" Murray added. "Those who have trained at the CDTF before and who now had the opportunity to train in the new scenarios were in awe of the realism and opportunity to get into such immersive and complex target sets."
Specialty lighting and surround sound effects, such as urban bustle, gunfire, explosions and aircraft fly-bys were incorporated to further enhance immersion and realism.
Each target is also reconfigurable so all the physical fabrications can be moved around to suit customer desire.
"Humvees are on casters so they can be rolled into a different position in the room, boxes and other props can also be moved," Lail said. "Even the signage can be changed to further obscure the threat or provide additional context in the training experience. Sometimes there may be no signage, other times signs might be in Chinese and another time they might be in English."
Murray was impressed with the Center's ability to interpret the CDTF's requirements and deliver a product that exceeded expectations.
"Their innovative and far-reaching capabilities are simply astounding. Their work to bring our training space to life made the biggest impact on our finished product," Murray said. "The CDTF is now the venue of choice for CBRN units world-wide as they seek opportunities to leverage capabilities replicated nowhere else in the world."
The Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) Chemical Biological Center, formerly known as the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, is the Army's principal research and development center for chemical and biological defense technology, engineering and field operations. The headquarters of the CCDC Chemical Biological Center is located at the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.
For more information about the CCDC Chemical Biological Center, visit https://www.ecbc.army.mil/.