‘Virtual Terrain’ enhances training for civil NVG users

 - November 24, 2009, 7:58 AM

Early next year Night Readiness will unveil its 3.0 Virtual Terrain Board (VTB) night-vision goggle (NVG) training aid. The 3.0 system will add weather, a “fly-through database” and dynamic shadowing to the capabilities of the company’s 2.0 system, unveiled for civilian use in 2007.

The 3.0 system will allow a more realistic classroom view of actual NVG conditions, according to Night Readiness CEO Steve Hatley. “We can show the moon rising or setting, its effect on terrain and shadows, and we can show the effects of rain and fog,” he said. Hatley said the system can provide an operational preview of an actual flight using forecast conditions. “We can show you what your flight will look like using goggles on a specific given day at 0400 Zulu, for example,” he explained.
Hatley said the company’s 2.0 line of systems will continue to be used as an NVG ab initio aid, but that the two systems have important differences. “With 2.0 think of yourself perched atop a 500-foot telephone pole. You have a full 360-degree panorama and you can vary your height to the ground, but you are fixed in space.” Version 3.0 will be a dynamic system, he noted.

The VTB system mates high-fidelity computer graphics with a sophisticated digital projector that projects onto a special, thin, five-foot by nine-foot horizontal black screen. The system can be driven by a powerful laptop loaded with customized, multi-spectral databases. Hatley claims VTB is superior to old terrain boards used for NVG training because of its sophistication, price and portability. The entire system costs less than $100,000 versus $50,000 to $150,000 for old-style terrain boards that relied on instructors to vary classroom lighting to simulate the infrared reflective properties of terrain. “It was a rather crude, limited and large-footprint system,” Hatley said.

Market Emerges for Civilian NVGs
Ninety-five percent of Night Readiness’s business is with the U.S. military, and in 2007 it began installing VTB 2.0 systems at several military facilities, including Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Travis AFB, Calif. It also has sold systems to CAE and L-3 in support of their military training programs. However, Hatley sees emerging demand from civil operators as more embrace NVG technology following the issuance of FAA standards for the technology (TSO-C164), currency and training (OpSpec AO50). “A lot of civilian operators were sitting on the fence trying to figure it out,” said Hatley. “Now there are rules out there.”

Hatley thinks that the new rules, the recent heightened focus on helicopter EMS safety training and the additional manufacturing capacity of NVG manufacturers will combine to drive more demand for civil NVG training next year and in 2011. With the goal of building that market, recently Night Readiness named NVG training company Night Flight Concepts (NFC) its exclusive VTB distributor for the civil and law enforcement sector in the U.S.

NFC is currently the only U.S. civilian school using VTB 2.0. Last year it graduated 50 clients–including the Broward County, Fla. Sheriff’s Department–on the system. NFC president Adam Aldous said VTB is popular with customers in part because of its ability to show NVG image nuances such as illumination light level shadows, visual illusions, halo effects, weather, non-compatible and compatible lighting, the difference in appearance between dirt, asphalt and concrete roads, and railroad tracks. “The system lets you simulate all different types of terrain, the looks you get over water, over snow, and in high- and low-contrast settings. You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars learning this in the aircraft. You can simulate all this in the classroom.”

Aldous said NFC’s NVG ab initio, recurrent and instructor courses combine computer-based distance learning, classroom course work, VTB training and in-aircraft training. He said that although the VTB is not a substitute for the minimum five one-hour NVG flights required for Part 135 qualification with goggles, it makes them more effective.

Aldous cautioned that almost no one qualifies on NVGs after just five hours in aircraft. “It’s more like seven or eight,” he said. “With VTB 2.0 we can cut that down to six or seven. With 3.0 we could probably get it down to five. We can show more in the classroom than we can in the aircraft. We can reinforce what students see in the aircraft and make them more proficient.”

He said that NFC plans to sell and provide VTB systems and training to its competitors and large civil helicopter operators. “Our mindset is to do what is
best for the industry, to set a standard across the industry that will benefit the pilots and the first responders who put their lives on the line for us.”