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Death may wait in the dark, but soon the 160th SOAR(A) will be able to rehearse missions in the AH/MH-6 Little Bird long before the sun sets.
By Jordan Fuhr


The Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) is one of the most proficient special operations forces around. Mandated to be operation-ready within hours, the 160th SOAR(A) get the job done with rotorcraft such as the MH-6 and AH-6 Little Birds, MH-60 Black Hawks and MH-47 Chinook heavy assault helicopters.

Although the nicknamed “Night Stalkers” with their motto, “death waits in the dark,” have access to the most sophisticated technology deployed, when it comes to mission rehearsal, the unit’s capabilities are not as comprehensive as some would think.

That will soon change when the 160th takes delivery of the world’s first AH/MH-6 Little Bird Light Assault/Attack Reconfigurable (LASAR) Combat Mission Simulator (CMS). Although the solution is new, the requirement is not.

The operations requirement document for the Little Bird simulator was signed a little less than nine years ago, according to the Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation—the office that awarded the contract.

“The 160th SOAR(A) has had a simulator for the MH-60K and MH-47E since March 1994, but left the MH-60L and the Little Bird community without SOF concurrent simulator devices,” said CW4 Michael J. Licholat, simulation and mission rehearsal project officer in the Systems Integration and Maintenance Office of the 160th SOAR(A).

Funding for a LASAR simulator was continually earmarked, but diverted to other programs deemed more necessary at the time. According to the Army, until now, training has been conducted in the available Little Birds because, in addition to the complexity of the simulation requirements, the Little Bird airframe was smaller, cheaper to buy and cheaper to fly than the others. Furthermore, the 160th SOAR(A) were, and still are, the only unit that uses the AH/MH-6 Little Birds.

According to David Graham, CAE director of special operations forces programs, the reason the LASAR CMS was finally purchased was simple: “The justification was mission rehearsal.”

The requirement for the 160th to be deployed anywhere in the world almost immediately drove the need to conduct mission rehearsal in a way that was realistic in all aspects. New world conflicts called for quick, if not immediate, deployments. Training in the air would not alone provide the necessary readiness required.

In March 2002, CAE trumped six competitors and signed with the Army as prime contractor for the Special Operations Forces Aviation Training and Rehearsal Systems program. Its initial task was to design the LASAR simulator, though CAE has also been tasked with modernizing, upgrading, networking and, in some cases, creating new trainers for the 160th’s MH-47 and MH-60 airframes.

Used for close-air fire support, resupply operations in hostile areas and personnel recovery, the AH/MH-6 is one tough bird. The AH-6 attack variant is capable of firing 2,000 rounds per minute from each of its two 7.62 miniguns and can be outfitted with two seven-shot 2.75 rocket pods, .50-caliber machine guns, MK19 40mm grenade launchers or Hellfire missiles. The MH-6 is modified with side seats above the sleds to carry six combat troops and their equipment. It is the primary vehicle for the 160th to perform stealth infiltrations, extractions and assaults.

“The LASAR will be used for procedural training associated with transition into the ARSOA [Army special operations aviation] unique platform, and will also be used as a mission rehearsal and special mission tasks trainer,” Licholat said.

Although the LASAR CMS is the first of its kind, CAE was able to borrow from its extensive work in the simulation and training industry to construct a high-performance simulator worthy of special operations mission rehearsal.

The simulator incorporates a six degree-of-freedom motion platform, and sandwiched between the motion platform and the dome is an innovative three degree-of-freedom vibration platform. The vibration platform works in concert with aural and visual cues to deliver a highly realistic cockpit environment for the aircrew. Adding to the realism is the sound system that simulates the associated deafening noise and delivers high-frequency vibrations.

One of the most distinct characteristics of the full-motion simulator is its impressive dome. The 24-foot dome display boasts a 240-degree by 98-degree field of view, capable of providing visuals 30 degrees aft of the cockpit’s beam. It is the largest dome display ever placed on a motion-based flight simulator. The concept was borrowed and improved on from the EH101 Merlin helicopter simulator dome, which CAE designed and built for the U.K. Royal Navy.

However, with the large field of view comes a trade off in the real image display. Compared to that of a collimated display, which uses mirrors and rear-projection screens, the dome visual surfaces creates more parallax and ultimately offers less perception of distance.

According CAE’s Graham, “With collimated displays you get much less parallax, and you get better cross-cockpit viewing. Unfortunately, the largest collimated display of which we are aware has a total field of view of approximately 60 degrees vertical by about 220 degrees horizontal.

“The SOCOM customer chose the much larger field of view of the LASAR dome—240 degrees horizontal by almost 100 degrees vertical. With a real image, we can reduce parallax errors for a single eye point, but we can’t simultaneously adjust for parallax from two eye points at the same time.”

Delivering the imagery to the dome is an eight-channel out-the-window visual system segmented to direct four channels of visuals to the top and four channels to the bottom of the dome.

The task of displaying those images was put to Barco Simulation because of its past work on the Merlin simulator. In 1996, Barco developed the split-pack, raster/calligraphic projection system used in CAE’s Merlin simulator, and according to Barco spokesman Jay Luis, “CAE knew that Barco had the capability and resources to develop a custom solution for this application.”

The projection system for the LASAR CMS operates at field rates from 20 Hz to 60 Hz and line rates from 15 kHz to 40 kHz. Luis said each split-pack projector consists of a control unit, projector head unit, power supply, computer and remote alignment control unit. Each control unit is designed to control three separate projector head unit that each house a specific red, green or blue CRT assembly.

Barco also developed special software to control and align the system, which proved challenging. When MT2 visited CAE’s Tampa office to fly the simulator, the company was still working the exact fit for the Barco projection system. Small segments of out-the-window view were noticeably distorted at the areas where the channels overlapped.

“The LASAR system projects eight distinct images onto the simulator’s dome surface. Using proprietary and sophisticated electronics, the images are seamlessly edge-blended on all four sides. Barco also increased the geometry distortion capability of the Genesis family to meet the unique demands of this simulator,” said Luis.

“Each channel produces a very large image,” he continued. “This posed several imaging challenges, such as geometry correction and alignment. Barco technicians worked round-the-clock to make this system a world-class simulator.”

Both CAE and Barco were positive the blend zones would be unnoticeable when the final product is delivered to Kentucky’s Fort Campbell in early 2005.

“When completed,” said Tom Burch, CAE’s LASAR CMS program manager, “if you look at the blend zone at the point of reference you will see a nice smooth transition … so it’s all set up for a pilot and a copilot to get a good picture, but not perfect.”

The simulations projected onto the dome will be Lockheed Martin’s existing Tactical Operational Scene (TOPSCENE) mission rehearsal system coupled with CAE’s visual solution.

TOPSCENE utilizes overhead imagery data from satellites and other sources, and converts the collected 2-D images into 3-D fly through visualization scenarios. Using TOPSCENE, according to the Army, it is possible to create a database from images in about two hours.

Enhancing the database, CAE has injected its Medallion-S image generation system into the system to improve the Night Stalkers’s experience.

“This is unique because up until only recently, the only way to get something like this was to buy TOPSCENE from Lockheed Martin,” said Graham. “Now, we can play TOPSCENE in the Little Bird simulator. The 160th will be able to use their classified databases and we will ensure that our computer generated forces software and our Medallion-S image generator will work perfect with it.”

The Medallion-S is an open architecture image generator that links multiple graphics processing units in parallel to provide increasingly dramatic levels of performance by using 16 GPUs per image generator channel.

Medallion-S is a highly scalable visual and highly reconfigurable solution that can be configured with calligraphic lights and sensor post-processing hardware for nighttime operational training tasks and high-fidelity sensor simulations such as thermal environments and night vision.

In addition to the overall richer detail provided, Medallion-S features include the ability to incorporate up to 25-centimeter satellite imagery global textures, comprehensive weather and special effects, raster-only and raster-calligraphic operation, no-penalty anistropic texture processing, built-in non-linear mapping, Phong shading and bump-mapping and rendering pixel and vertex shaders.

“The integration of [TOPSECENE] into the Medallion-S image generator allows us to leverage the use of our existing geo-specific databases without the duplication of effort to make a dedicated Medallion-S database, said Licholat.”

“These databases are used to feed the TOPSCENE 400 mission preview systems, the TOPSCENE 4860 image generator, as well as the new Medallion-S IGs. The time saved in database production allows our database developers to continue to work on expanding our coverage of the world, while they continue to support our forward deployed warfighters.”

In addition to the size of the display on which the database will be projected, another exceptional feature to the LASAR simulator is the operator control station.

Based on the Windows2000 operating system, and powered by the same bank of IBM 300 machines and xSeries 360 servers, which runs the entire simulator system, the station allows instructors an unprecedented amount of control.

The station is a collection of controls, monitors and closed-circuit televisions that provide three views inside the cockpit. Two cameras mounted above the pilots’ shoulders keep an eye on cockpit operations and one camera above the nose of the fuselage provides an out-the-window view for the instructor.

The flat-screen monitors allow the instructor to cycle through the options available for the simulator, such as mechanical failures or inserting computer-generated forces. But the stations also provide radar views, FLIR views and the mapping program FalconView, in addition to standard forms such as weight and balance charts.

The station allows the controller to listen in on cockpit communications and directly talk with the pilots if necessary. The control station also has the ability to record missions.

“With no training, I was able to navigate through the IOS menus within 20 minutes,” said Licholat. “Additionally, since there is no on-board IOS operator, there exists a capability with COTS wireless technology to control the IOS from the cockpit with a PDA.”

The PDA is a Hewlett-Packard iPAQ, which provides the ability to control almost all of the functions on the simulator from the handheld. Instructors have the ability to walk around or be inside the simulator and retain control of the LASAR simulator. The handheld can also record and playback the mission inside the cockpit.

When delivered to Fort Campbell, simulator and instructor station will link with existing mission preview and planning systems and after-action review training systems.

The original date of delivery was April 2004. However, according to CAE, there have been multiple changes incorporated into the simulator, such as the Medallion-S/TOPSCENE visual system, in order to provide the 160th SOAR(A) with exactly what they want.

Commenting on the delay, Licholat said there was a need to develop an aerodynamic model for an aircraft that was never fully instrumented. “The aerodynamic tuning of the device is being accomplished by CAE engineers working in close conjunction with some amazingly gifted engineers from PEO STRI and the pilots from the 160th. This qualitative tuning, though time intensive, is yielding an aerodynamic model that will be acceptable to the demanding scrutiny of the 160th pilots.”

“Additionally,” he continued, “there is a lengthy process associated with tuning the visual display and ensuring that it meets inspection criteria for factory acceptance testing. In order to prevent damage to the psychological fidelity LASAR—if the pilot thinks the device is flawed, they will not appreciate it’s utility, even if it is flawless—both CAE and the 160th SOAR(A) have a profound commitment to ensuring all technical challenges associated with the display and the aerodynamic model have been solved at the factory, prior to having the LASAR released to the 160th Little Bird community.”

When MT2 flew the LASAR CMS, the Little Bird visual database was not used.

“Currently,” Burch noted, “the visual database is from the Apache CMS that CAE has been upgrading for the Army so it’s not specifically tuned for the LASAR CMS.”

Burch also said that CAE was ironing out some wrinkles in its STRIVE-CGF system—CAE’s largest and latest computer-generated force package. “All simulation systems are now integrated,” Burch said, “except for the computer-generated forces, which we will be integrated over the next couple months before delivery to the regiment.”

Now in the final months of the contract, both the Army and CAE expect the simulator to be ready for training in June 2005. CAE expects to complete the final testing at the factory in January.

“The real proof of its utility will be realized when the pilots are able to use it to perform training in the special mission tasks. For the AH/MH-6 community, they tend to get ‘up close and personal’ with their objective areas,” said Licholat. “Whether it is performing a rooftop landing or precision close air support, the ability to realistically depict the visual cues that pilots depend upon is critical to the successful training and proficiency in these special mission tasks.

“We are excited about receiving the LASAR and integrating it into our training, simulation and mission rehearsal doctrine, and look forward to solving the remaining technical challenges,” said Licholat. “The LASAR will provide the AH and MH-6 crews with an aircraft concurrent simulation and rehearsal capability that they have never before had, and I am certain that they will fully exploit the device’s potential.”

Editor’s Note: For more information on the overall 160th SOAR(A) training and mission rehearsal modernization plan, please pick up a copy of SOTECH 3.1 to be published in January 2005.

http://www.military-training-technology.com/print_article.cfm?DocID=725
 
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