The US Army is creating a virtual replica of the planet to drill troops in.
The idea is that it will be so realistic that practising missions in virtual reality will be almost as good as the real thing.
It could mean that US troops would be able to drop into a country like North Korea and already be familiar with the local terrain.
The Synthetic Training Environment can make a virtual reality environment of almost anywhere. The user simply draws a rectangle on a digital map, and then the tool trawls publicly available data sources, such as Open Street Map and Google
Earth, to build the terrain.
For example, the US Army mapped the whole Korean peninsula this way, all from public sources. The software added topographical data and satellite photography to make the virtual environment look as lifelike as possible, with larger cities and the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea recreated at 2.5 centimetres per pixel – double the resolution of other areas. It took just three days to create virtual reality versions of both nations, something that would previously have taken months.
The US Army has also built virtual versions of San Francisco and New York, each with millions of buildings, and a virtual Las Vegas that incorporates street view imagery and 3D models directly from Microsoft’s Bing Maps. However, some of the data for Las Vegas was not available from public sources so the work was done in partnership with Microsoft.
Realism is an important part of the simulations, so driving between two points on the virtual Earth takes as long as it would do in the real world.
The US Army is also looking into the possibility of adding images taken by surveillance drones.
According to an official document about the project, it will allow soldiers to “train as they will fight, on the terrain they will fight on”. It adds that the virtual Earth is an attempt to keep pace with gaming technology and other simulation software “where we currently lag”.
The result is a quicker, cheaper way to generate virtual environments based on real-world locations. Gaming technology is an increasingly common part of some military training toolkits, says Peter Quentin at the Royal United Services Institute, a defence and security think tank based in London.
He says there are UK Ministry of Defence sites “where there are vast rows of desk spaces with effectively civilian gaming kits – steering wheels and all the rest of it – and they are playing refitted civilian games”.
Using gaming technology such as virtual reality can help countries train their soldiers cheaply and also let them gather data on trainee performance for comparison. However, there are many important aspects of training, like physical endurance, that cannot be tested virtually, says Quentin.
New Scientist. (2018) A Virtual World for Training Troops. New Scientist. 28 April 2018, pp.8.