Identifying and removing land mines is tough enough without having to worry about their daunting variety. Decades of technological development by manufacturers in countries around the world have yielded hundreds of different models that come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, and colours. Sorting them out is crucial to the success — and survival — of any de-mining operation.
Such expertise has found a welcome ally with NGRAIN Corp. The Vancouver, B.C.-based firm has become one of the leaders in 3-D visualization technology, which has produced a dynamic, interactive database of mines that promises to revolutionize the de-mining process.
Where that process once relied on carrying around little more than a hard-copy catalogue of mines, users can now turn to a laptop computer listing different models in a much more accessible fashion, including multimedia demonstrations of how each type is constructed and, above all, how to take it apart.
“Not only do we create and allow you to interact and visualize these models, but we also allow you to update and contain, and have subject matter updates,” says Gabe Batstone, NGRAIN’s Vice-President of Sales & Professional Services. “It’s an ongoing database; you keep adding to it and modifying the existing one. We give you the tools so you can update these yourself.”
The database emerged from Canadian Forces J3 Engineer Operations application of NGRAIN Product Knowledge Management Solution, which created interactive visualizations and simulations using dynamics bundles of data referred to as knowledge objects. The resulting National Defence Mine/Countermine Information Centre (NDMIC) Landmine Database earned a gold award at last year’s GTEC Conference.
NDMIC was established as the National Defence Demining Action Centre in 1996, following dozens of mine strikes. Renamed in 2000 to reflect its role in collecting, coordinating, and disseminating the latest information on mines and countermine strategies, the Centre’s Web site (http://ndmic-cidnm.forces.gc.ca) features a comprehensive listing of details that can be downloaded to a CD or a PDA, a database that NGRAIN has been enhancing.
Founded in 2000 under the name i3Dimensions Inc., NGRAIN’s products have been welcomed by software developers who may have had little or no experience in creating 3D images for their work. Not only do those products reduce the expense and effort of creating such images — opening up wider possibilities for portable applications in education, training, maintenance or customer support — the end users will wind up with far greater functionality.
Among those users has been Microsoft Corp. (Redmond, WA) Chairman Bill Gates, who two years ago demonstrated how NGRAIN’s Mobilizer software integrated with his company’s Word and PowerPoint files. Using a three-dimensional image of a sports car, he was able to rotate, assemble and disassemble the car part by part, run various animations highlighting those parts, and use a search function to look up additional information about the car on the Internet.
To a military agency responsible for de-mining operations around the world, such functionality means providing people with the information and tools to keep them safer, while still letting them carry out their work. To Batstone, it is a question of honing an approach that can meet many different needs for many different organizations.
“This is using off-the-shelf technology quickly, easily and affordably,” says Batstone, who notes that the training features of this technology have turned out to be just as important as its application in mine fields.
“That’s all the military does,” he says. “When they’re not at war, they train, and when they are at war, they train. This is a constant state of learning and changing and adapting. We think we have a unique touch in that environment which takes multimedia and the virtual experience to a different level. The return-on-investment is significant not only in safety, but also in training time and in cost of mistakes.”
With specific reference to de-mining initiatives, NGRAIN’s software augments existing training approaches, which have relied on replica mines that remain expensive and limited in number. Using computer technology, individuals can instead view a mine model anywhere, anytime — rotating it at any angle, examining a cross section, taking it apart and zooming in on each piece.
Batstone points out that the implications of this capability go well beyond mines. The U.S. military is another NGRAIN client that has taken advantage of three-dimensional simulations to meet its training needs. A recent example took place at the U.S. Army School, which trains upward of 1,200 technicians a year. The facility’s simulator for demonstrating how to assess vehicle brakes, a fixed installation that activated various video displays, was outdated and deteriorating. Replacing it was estimated to cost about $1.3 million US, plus another $80,000 US per year to maintain it.
For just over a third of that amount, however, the Army installed a computer-based system using NGRAIN’s interactive knowledge objects software. Students, who were now able to take advantage of this training material more often than just during classroom sessions, received immediate feedback as they practiced, learning faster than they had previously done. Moreover, instructors were better able to track the performance of students on critical tasks, by being able to monitor each individual’s usage of the system.
The Canadian Air Force had a similarly positive experience with NGRAIN’s software, which became the foundation of an interactive training strategy for helicopter maintenance. The Air Force was interested in setting up an automatic routine to manage the many different tasks that would surround the development, procurement, and servicing of a helicopter fleet, while also confronting a shortage of skill maintenance technicians that could be at critical levels by the end of this decade.
NGRAIN was able to address these issues together using three-dimensional visualization that helped students work through the many different facets of a helicopter accident scenario. A formal study of the effectiveness of this approach found that it reduced the time required to deal with such an incident by as much as 30 per cent. In this way, human resources were extended, even as maintenance activities were being automated to achieve more ambitious performance.
Batstone says quite apart from the cost-savings NGRAIN provided to the military in such instances, this technology acknowledges the increasingly critical role that maintenance plays in deploying any kind of hardware.
“Maintenance equals power,” he insists, arguing that 100 tanks running effectively 10 per cent of the time give you the same operational capability as 10 tanks running effectively 100 per cent of the time. Such equations are vital to some of the most subtle deliberations surrounding innovations in a new aircraft, where the use of a thinner, lighter alloy might improve performance in the air but add unacceptably to the amount of time the craft spends on the ground being fixed.
In fact, Batstone cites estimates suggesting that 60 to 70 per cent of the total cost of a program to launch a new aircraft might have nothing to do with the design or manufacture, but instead stem from maintenance and other support expenditures. In this light, getting optimal performance from complex equipment is a matter of how you handle these latter categories of activity, and ensuring that people can rise to the challenges they will face in this work.
“If you field something without giving the training to support it, it won’t be utilized for productivity,” says Batstone, referring to the difficult introduction faced by a mobile power unit adopted by the U.S. military. Maintenance personnel complained vociferously about the new generators, even though they were unquestionably superior to the old ones. The reason, it turned out, was that they had not been provided with any working knowledge to go along with this new equipment.
And sometimes, he adds, that working knowledge has to be cultivated on-the-fly. As the U.S. military has beefed up the armour on its vehicles in Iraq, the added weight has wrought havoc on the transmissions of those vehicles, which must be dealt with much more frequently. Consequently, service procedures are being adapted accordingly.
“You need to give those guys software tools and technology so they can do it,” says Batstone, “because there’s no course for that.”