By Audra Calloway
Picatinny Public Affairs
PICATINNY ARSENAL, NJ -- Two Soldiers and two Marines made their virtual debut last month while helping Picatinny engineers create a computer trainer for the M777A2 Lightweight 155mm Towed Howitzer.
The new trainer will aid Soldiers and Marines by providing an interactive review of the proper procedures on how to safely and accurately perform critical M777A2 crew tasks, explained Jessica Francois.
She is the Training Aids, Devices, Simulators and Simulations (TADSS) manager with Program Manager Towed Artillery Systems, part of the Program Executive Office for Ammunition.
"It will not replace live-fire training, but will assist Soldiers and Marines who have been away from the M777A2 because of other assignments with refresher and sustainment training on key crew tasks," she said.
This CD-based, and web-accessible virtual training environment will be leveraged in the future development of a desktop trainer for learning institutions.
The new trainer is officially called the M777A2 Computer Based Trainer/Computer Aided Instruction (CBT/CAI) Interactive Multimedia Instruction (IMI).
The M777A2 CBT/CAI IMI will provide interactive roles for four key positions on an artillery crew. The other four positions are computer controlled avatars, Francois said.
"The trainee will be able to select one of four positions that predominately perform the (critical) tasks. The remaining crew positions will be controlled by the computer. So based on the actions of the trainee, if they do the right or wrong thing, the other positions will respond accordingly," Francois explained.
To create the M777A2 trainer, military instructors from the United States Field Artillery School in Fort Sill, Okla., acted as avatar models for the trainer.
Several Picatinny employees with current or former service in the Army or Marine Corps, also participated as model avatars.
Picatinny software engineers from the Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC) captured movements of the participants, who wore motion-capture suits while conducting various crew tasks.
"ARDEC's Gaming Interactive Technologies and Multimedia Team (GITM) focused on capturing a small number of tasks from the technical manual that targeted a few key areas of the weapon's functionality, some of which included the preparation and firing of the weapon system as well as the preparation of an Excalibur artillery round," explained Anthony Ur, Lead Visual Information Specialist (Multimedia) Gaming, Interactive Technologies and Multimedia Team.
The engineers also scanned the participants' faces using a 3D scanner to create a virtual rendering of each participant's facial features and characteristics.
This imagery will be used in conjunction with 3D renderings of the most current Army and Marine Corps uniforms and tactical gear to create lifelike avatars appearing as Soldiers and Marines within the training products, Francois said.
Video footage, along with the recorded motion capture footage, will be played simultaneously to ensure that the animations used in the training products are both accurate and realistic.
Finally, a 3D model of the M777A2, provided by BAE Systems, will be inserted into the training product.
"It was definitely different," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Lance Williams, an instructor from the Directorate of Training and Doctrine at Fort Sill, said of playing an avatar. "I've worn many things for the military, but this is the first time it's been cables and electronics."
Williams explained that the trainer will be helpful to new military personnel who do not know proper firing procedures, as well as reservists without ready access to howitzers to practice on.
"It should aid in getting procedures down, so that when (the Soldiers) actually go out into the field for the live-fires, instructors are not having to re-teach basic steps," Williams said of the trainers.
Marine Gunnery Sgt. Daniel White, who is with the Marine Corps artillery detachment at Fort Sill, did not participate as an avatar, but provided oversight of the maneuvers to ensure accuracy.
"On the Marine side, we've got units that deploy on ship, and when they're on ship all of the howitzers are stored in the well-deck of the ship," said White. "(The howitzers) are compact and the Marines can't actually drop the trails and do the drills. So they'll be able to train on this instead so they haven't forgotten what they have learned."
He added that the trainer will also allow military members to cross-train different crew positions.
The trainer will be released in phases, with the initial v1.0 phase teaching the critical tasks that the crew must know to operate the M777A2 and its digital fire control system (DFCS). The second phase of this trainer, v2.0, will incorporate the tasks that would be used if the DFCS was degraded, such as the use of optical fire control.
Finally, v3.0, for the Army only, will incorporate maintenance tasks.
Closely related is the M777A2 Lightweight Desktop Trainer (LWDT) and LWDT-Institutional (LWDT-I).
This trainer will also be fielded at the battery level in a laptop computer configuration, allowing up to four computers to be networked together for interactive training in the field. A battery is a field artillery equivalent of a company.
The v1.0 is scheduled to be available by the end of fiscal year 2014.
The trainers are a collaboration with PM TAS and ARDEC's Automated Test Systems Team and the Gaming, Interactive Technologies and Multimedia Branch.
PM TAS also has a requirement, and is in the planning stages for creation of virtual trainers for the Digitized M119A2 Lightweight 105mm Towed Howitzer as well as Maintenance trainers of similar configurations for both the M777A2 and the Digitized M119A2.