Home Defence, Training & Simulation Using simulation in the right place at the right time

Using simulation in the right place at the right time

As part of our ongoing series picking the brains of some of the most interesting and influential members of the defence and simulation community, we spoke this week to Ian McCrudden, COO of the European Training and Simulation Association (ETSA).

Ian started his career in 1980 as an apprentice technician with the Ministry of Defence (MOD) before joining British Aerospace (now BAE Systems) at the end of the decade. His experience in engineering and designing continued to diversify in 1996 when he joined the Systems and Service Division as project manager. It's here that he first started working seriously with training and simulators for a variety of aircraft.

Almost 25 years later, after spending some time away from aerospace training to return to manufacturing, Ian retired from BAE and was headhunted by the ETSA. Today, he is responsible for managing membership of the ETSA as COO and ambassador. 

We caught up with him to discuss why the ETSA drew him away from a potential retirement, the challenges facing simulation in 2022 and beyond, and his thoughts on why simulation is a powerful tool but also isn't the be-all-end-all of training.

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What's the ETSA all about?

The ESTA was founded in 2003 by a collection of like-minded simulation and training sector lifetimers. The initial goal was simply to build a membership association that would allow the community to develop and communicate but today it's grown into something altogether more ambitious.

ETSA Logo

Members of the ETSA network with each other, exchange opportunities, ideas and strategies, and even send bid requests, RFI and industrial questionnaires to each other. The goal of the organisation today is not just to offer the European Modelling, Simulation and Training (MS&T) community a space to converse and share ideas but to promote the development, use and efficacy of modelling and simulation technologies to the outside world. It's also important for the ETSA that they are able to share and promote the best practises for training design, development and delivery throughout the European community.

One of the key missions of the ETSA in recent years has been to explore the necessary balance between live training and simulation training. They both have their parts to play, of course, but Ian feels the military mindset is changing as the technology gets more refined and more powerful.

The synthetic-live balance

"The debate about the balance between synthetic and live training has been ongoing for years," Ian explains. "Indeed, when I first started in the industry, many senior Air Force personnel were insistent on getting trainees into the actual aircraft as soon as possible. I even recall one RAF Commanding Officer complaining that simulators are not real flying."

Of course, that was over 20 years ago and today the use of simulation is a lot more widespread thanks to reductions in government platform funding and the significant developments in the fidelity of the visual world, not to mention computing power. 

This, Ian feels, "has slowly driven a change in the military mindset." In the F35 programme, for example, the lack of twin-seat training aircraft means pilots must spend a significant amount of time in a simulator before they fly for the first time. "We are talking about a multi-million-pound aircraft, after all," Ian says.

Twin-seat aircraft simulator

And that's where the key benefit of simulation reveals itself - it's not only significantly cheaper than live training but also safer too. It's physically safer to get it wrong in the simulator rather than on the real thing. Ian continues: "Not only are simulators cheaper to use per hour and reduce wear and tear on real equipment but often, for safety reasons and physical & environmental restrictions, certain elements of the operational spectrum cannot feasibly be addressed in a live environment. Simulation can help to fill the gap in the training continuum while reducing workplace accidents."

Simulators can also be used to practice emergency scenarios and procedures which would be impossible in live training. Ian says: "Simulation extends the boundaries of the possible, allowing users to experience events at or beyond the outer envelope of their equipment's operations. And the scenarios can be accurately repeated as many times as you want."

The ability to record, replay and review in the simulator allows for a comprehensive debrief of the training session and you can undertake mission rehearsals without having to put your personnel in the danger zone or even leave your barracks. With that kind of convenience, it's easy to see why mindsets are changing fast.

Challenges for simulation - and ETSA

Brexit posed an interesting challenge for many of us. For the ETSA, however, while they haven't seen any changes in regard to their relationship with European members, there was one specific fly in the ointment to contend with.

Ian explains: "The UK national members of ETSA's Board have been restricted from attending any European Defence Agency forums due to the UK Government not signing up to the European Defence Agreement." There were also the various export challenges to navigate but Ian feels ETSA's UK members coped well with these challenges through their diligence in pre-planning.

A far greater challenge was posed by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did the pandemic make it difficult for the ETSA to provide members with "the same kinds of membership benefits they were offered in pre-Covid times," the lack of face-to-face contact also posed a real threat, as Ian and the team were not able to attend or exhibit at conferences and exhibitions in Europe.

"Personally," Ian muses, "I also think people are becoming bored with attending virtual webinar events. People simply want to meet up and socialise over a drink. I guess it's a human thing."

The final challenge is a more practical one faced by all organisations that rely on paid membership (though individual membership is only £60 a year, in this case, it has to be said)  "When we formed in 2003 there was a real need for an association like ETSA to facilitate networking within the industry across Europe but with the growth of social media and with many companies now doing their own webinars or virtual promotional events (largely as a result of Covid-19), membership, recruitment and retention is suffering a little." 

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Don't choose technology for technology's sake

While Ian is a strong advocate for simulation and feels that many of the latest VR training devices are offering stunning visual immersion to the trainees, he feels that they are only really effective when used in the right way. Indeed, if used for the wrong purpose, he believes that VR could actually be seen as "negative training."

One of the biggest problems is all about the user interface, or a lack thereof. And that's primarily down to the lack of sensory feedback. "There is an element of tactile perception with some of the latest hand controllers," Ian says, "but many bear no relevance whatsoever to the physical manual task and for me this seems to distract from the training exercise altogether." 

Despite major recent developments such as the Teslasuit Glove closing the gap, Ian doesn't believe that there is any haptic glove out there that can realistically mimic the feedback required to simulate using real equipment. And although walking moving motion platforms (such as the InfinaDeck) are starting to add to the full sense of physical motion, in reality, he "doesn't think that the industry is quite there yet in their ability to provide a full sensory immersive VR training solution that matches the real world." 

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He even goes so far as to suggest there are VR training applications designed to deliver training that might have been better placed using real equipment or simply reading a book. "Climbing a ladder to then use a spanner and torque wrench on a bolted assembly roof assembly," he explains, "why not simply give the trainee a set of tools to develop their hand skills?" 

For Ian, and ETSA by extension, simulation needs to be used in the right place at the right time within the training pipeline and become a holistic part of the overall training solution. There are recent developments that have been more successful at integrating simulated real equipment hardware with VR and these are going to only become more common as users begin to realise the benefit of tactile feedback. 

He cites the Spanish company Virtualware as a recent example: "Their solution for Hitachi GE Nuclear in fuel rod training, which also provided a transportable training solution, brings the training device to the trainee at their point of need rather than travelling to a dedicated simulator schoolhouse." And that's just one of many such examples of technology finally catching up to the potential of simulation.

The right place at the right time

It's no great secret that the technology underpinning simulation is becoming more sophisticated. The bulky simulation domes that were once required are now starting to be replaced by modern simulation solutions that can not only reduce costs but can be done from almost anywhere.

Minor drawbacks such as "cyber sickness" are always going to be an issue to some degree but as higher resolution headsets with higher refresh rates start to be released, even that problem might soon disappear.

Low-cost computing solutions are also bringing the technology to more people than ever before, particularly in the fallout of the pandemic when remote learning has become the rule rather than the exception. With such resources available, Ian feels that ignoring this technology "will ultimately lead to your training solutions falling behind or being deemed as obsolete." However, he admits that "we cannot simply bank on one developing technology meeting all of our future training needs."

Ian finishes: "Ultimately, within any end-to-end training solution, we must remember that one size does not fit all. We must use the most appropriate technologies at the right point in the training pipeline to meet each fundamental training requirement."

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Posted in Defence, Training & Simulation

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Published on 25 Mar 2022

Last updated on 25 Mar 2022

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