Virtual Environment for Forward Air Controller Training (1996 – 2001)
Initiated by a demand for more effective training tools at the Netherlands Integrated Air Ground Operations School, the use of virtual environment technology for training Forward Air Controllers was subject of a study by TNO-FEL in 1996. In close co-operation with the Royal Netherlands Army, the feasibility of a Head Mounted Display (HMD)-based training simulator was investigated, and its validity as a solution to improve training effectiveness was assessed.
The Forward Air Controller (FAC) is an army officer who plays an important role in Close Air Support (CAS) operations. His task is to guide the pilots in their operation such that they engage the correct enemy targets, without endangering friendly forces. The Forward Air Controller takes a position in the very front line of the battlefield – keeping an eye on both enemy and friendly forces while observing the flight manoeuvres of the Close Air Support aircraft. The FAC maintains a radio connection with the CAS pilot to brief the pilot such that the operation will be safe and successful.
Originally, the FAC-training practice was that trainees were first taken through a short but intensive theoretical course, after which they were directly exposed to live exercises with real aircraft. Due to a lack of experience, the first training runs were usually unsuccessful, making the valuable flight time ineffective. Therefore, it was assumed that a FAC-training simulator will fill the gap between theory and real-life exercises.
The developed Forward Air Controller application comprises three distinct TNO’s Electronic Battlefield Facility federates:
- A high-resolution HMD-simulator for the FAC. The HMD is used to immerse the trainee in the virtual environment allowing to freely look around in the simulated battlefield – a strict requirement to enable observation of both enemy forces, friendly forces and air traffic.
- A simple flight simulator for the Close Air Support- aircraft.
- An Instructor Console and a Classroom Presentation Station for monitoring and evaluation.
The training concept was that the instructor places hostile and own units in the field with his computer. Subsequently, an operation in this environment is performed with a flight simulator. Using a simulated radio link, the FAC talks to the pilot which operates the flight simulator. The simulator is truly a training simulator. Much attention had been paid to creating a fertile learning environment with the simulator. The trainees who are not involved with the HMD themselves look at three large screens. On these screens, they can simultaneously see the image that the FAC sees in the HMD, the image that the pilot sees from the aeroplane or helicopter cockpit, and an overview map. In addition, they hear the radio-communication, so they fully experience the exercise.
After completing an exercise, the system can fully replay the exercise. The instructor can review the exercise with the trainees. Important lessons to be identified can be quickly looked up and played back. This is one of the aspects that make the system a powerful learning tool.
The system was evaluated by FAC instructors from the Netherlands Integrated Air Ground Operations School (SGLS). A series of three training courses were held to evaluate the FAC-simulator prototype. The outcome of the evaluation indicated that the training objectives of the school were met by the FAC-simulator and that the effectiveness of the FAC training program would be significantly improved.
In 2000, SGLS was moving to a completely new facility at another military encampment. One wing of the building was redesigned to house the FAC-simulator facility. In 2001, the FAC-trainings started at the new facility. One result of the virtual environment trainings is that the FAC performance in the field had increased with over twenty per cent.