Navy tests online simulation environment for sub design

Immersive modeling software aids in rapid prototyping.

A Navy branch that develops new submarines and other seafaring vessels is testing a new technique to vet designs online, rather than through full-sized physical mock-ups.

"The potential for cost-savings is enormous," said Douglas Maxwell, the technical lead for the project.

Designing a new submarine or other vessel can be prohibitively expensive. So making sure the design works well for the personnel on-board the craft is a must. Traditionally when designing a new type of submarine, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) tests critical sections of the vessel by building out actual full-sized mock-ups of such operational environments. Then commanders and support personnel are brought in to test and critique the layout.

Building such a mock-up however can be costly, and they can only be used for a single project. So, the NUWC is testing elaborate and full-functional online mock-ups, ones that personnel can test from afar. The job is part of a larger NUWC program called the Metaverse Exploration Project, which looks at ways to build out and use simulation technology for training, rapid prototyping and other duties. The program looks at various technologies that would be of use to NUWC. By modeling, designers can make changes more quickly to their designs based on the feedback they can get from users.

"We would like to support rapid-prototyping. Basically, we would like to create an environment where the fleet, shipbuilders and scientists can collaborate on platform design," Maxwell said. "We could create many iterations of advanced design, and let the users tell us which ones work and which ones don't."

Moreover, by going virtual, the NUWC could save the expense and the time of having Navy individuals travel to its Newport, Rhode Island-location to try out a mock-up.

One test-case being tried is that of a submarine's combat systems center — the hub of the submarine where the commanders and sonar operators do their jobs. For modeling this environment, NUWC used virtual workplace software from Qwaq Forums, from Qwaq Inc.

The software works like any online-based immersive environment. Each client gets a dedicated application, which offers them a menu of possible forums to participate in. Once the user logs onto the combat center forum, he or she then can walk an avatar into an accurately-depicted and fully-operational combat center. The avatar can operate sonar console software, for instance, just as he or she would do in real life.

"When you are looking at a Qwaq console, the screen being displayed to you is a live, running operational system on your network," Maxwell said. Testers are put through a scripted concept-of-operation exercise, where they undertake the normal functions of a mission. They can offer their insights with the design engineers through chat software that is part of the application.

The submarine environment itself is based on the Computer Aided Design (CAD)-files actually being developed by engineers. One of the chief features of Qwaq — one missing in Second Life for instance — is that it can ingest and re-render CAD drawings. "We can create an entire environment based on that CAD file," Maxwell said. Qwaq translates the CAD models into the Croquet format.

The Qwaq software offers a number of other operational advantages, Maxwell said. For one, it allows the ability to pull in outside applications — such as the software for the sonar operator's console — and run them from within the virtual environment. Also, the software also can be run entirely behind the firewall (though Qwaq offers a hosted version as well). The client software only uses a minimal number of ports to communicate with the main servers, which makes it easier to manager, security-wise. The server software is a virtual appliance, a Linux-based environment running within a VMWare container.

Beyond the realm of rapid prototyping, the Qwaq platform would be ideal for any sort of "distributed project management," where a project team is spread out geographically, said Greg Nuyens, CEO of Qwaq. A customer could be a team "building an airplane or shipping a software release, or taking care of sick kids. The real challenge is that trying to look at stuff together and be coordinated, and make decisions and take actions," he said.

The software could also be used as a basis of a virtual command center, where multiple users are looking at multiple sources of data to make determination. "We've seen that play out in all kinds of different settings, where a bunch of specialists work together with their data sources to take actions," he said. It could also be used for training, where the environment could be customized to the specific environment in which the user is being trained.

Nuyens noted that Qwaq can not only share virtual immersive environments, but most types of software. A user can drag an application such as the launcher for a spreadsheet onto the console's workspace and others in the forum can use that app as well. A user can also share the software session in a view-only mode, and others can comment on the work being done through the chat function.

The NUWC is currently in the testing stages of the submarine combat center environment, ensuring it can work safely on the Navy networks, such as the Navy Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI). They also have to work through issues such as network bandwidth. CAD-based models tend to be quite large and can take up bandwidth to reproduce accurately on a remote machine; NUWC is evaluating how much fidelity would be needed for remote testing.