Supercomputers make new aircraft simulations fly

Technicians at a state-of-the-art modeling and simulation facility at the
Naval Air Station in Patuxent River, Md., are using high-performance computers to help
develop and test advanced aircraft and weapons systems.

The Air Combat Environment Test and Evaluation Facility, managed by the Naval Air
Warfare Center’s Aircraft Division, is colocated with a supercomputer center built as
part of the Defense Department’s $1.3 billion High-Performance Computing
Modernization Program. The HPC Center processes data for ACETEF at the secret level and
above using military applications that require tremendous computing power.

DOD’s weapons systems design and test process are relying more and more on
high-fidelity modeling and simulation to augment live testing. ACETEF is testing
next-generation aircraft, such as the Joint Strike Fighter, the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor
aircraft and the F/A-18E/F Hornet. The testing will help shorten their respective
engineering, manufacturing and design cycles, and reduce development costs.

“Silicon Graphics Inc. powers our high-performance computing center here, which is
the engine for nearly every one of our simulations,” said Dana Paterson, a project
coordinator with the Naval Air Warfare Center’s Aircraft Division.

In its first year of operation in 1996, the HPC Center ran a 40-processor SGI
PowerChallenge array. But last year the center added two 32-processor Onyx2 visualization
supercomputers from SGI that run high-end applications such as computational fluid
dynamics, computational electromagnetics and acoustics, and graphics and signal

One Onyx machine is configured with three graphics pipes, the other with four graphics
pipes, and the PowerChallenge has two.

“There are one or two applications that are moving to Microsoft Windows NT,”
Paterson said. “But primarily we’re a Unix house because we do a lot of
hard-core, real-time modeling and simulation here.”

The systems at the new facility comply with the DOD-mandated High-Level Architecture
and are year 2000-ready, he said.

ACETEF scientists and engineers harness the Onyx power to test aircraft and their
subsystems in simulated combat environments that are painstakingly realistic. The
sprawling test facility includes an anechoic chamber, multiple laboratories, stimulators
and simulators.

The Silicon Graphics machines integrate the different simulated warfare environments
into a shared memory and multiprocessing architecture with high-speed connectivity between
the labs. An umbrella simulation model, called the Synthetic Warfare Environment
Generator, allocates bits and pieces of this virtual environment to each lab.

A 40-foot dome inside ACETEF simulates several types of aircraft cockpits in which a
pilot can sit and fly the aircraft with a virtual 360-degree, 3-D graphical view of his
surroundings—front, side and over the shoulder. The man-flight simulator lets pilots
train in a realistic flying scenario without actually taking to the air.

On the stimulator side, aircraft are placed inside the anechoic chamber, which
simulates a combat environment. It stimulates the aircraft’s subsystems, such as
radar and electronic-countermeasures systems, with electromagnetic signals to see how they
respond to electronic threats.

Sensors on the aircraft detect radio frequencies emitted from a particular direction
and respond accordingly.

Simulation-based acquisition and use of modeling and simulation to save money on
testing and evaluating equipment is gaining acceptance throughout DOD, Patterson said. HPC
technology has already saved many millions of dollars, improving the effectiveness of
complex weapons systems, he said.

ACETEF shares the computing center with other DOD scientists and engineers via the
high-speed Defense Research and Engineering Network (DREN). AT&T Corp. in July 1996
won the DREN Intersite Service Contract to link the DOD HPC Modernization Program’s
major shared resource centers, distributed centers and remote sites with wide-area
connectivity at transmission rates of up to 155 Mbps.

But the HPC Center’s customer base is growing steadily, Paterson said, placing
greater demands on its systems and forcing the center to do more with less.

“We need more assets so we can support more customers simultaneously,” he
said. “We can’t run at multiple security levels simultaneously in the same
machine. We require twice as many machines, or we have to support those customers one at a
time with an extensive data scrub in between, which is what we have been doing.”

Plans are in the works to upgrade the center’s computing power. But Paterson
declined to specify what machines and configurations are being considered.  

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