Navy creates a virtual world to test submarine design

When visualizing data, sometimes a map or graph isn’t enough. Setting up an entire virtual world occasionally is the best way to understand new information.

The Naval Undersea Warfare Center is doing that with an experimental approach to submarine design. It has created a Second Life-like virtual replica of a proposed design of a submarine's control hub using architectural renderings of the new design. By being immersed in a new environment, submarine commanders will have a better idea of the proposed changes to the hub and can offer more constructive feedback.

"We would like to support rapid prototyping," said Douglas Maxwell, technical lead for the project. "Basically, we would like to create an environment where the fleet, shipbuilders and scientists can collaborate on platform design. We could create many iterations of advanced design and let the users tell us which ones work and which ones don't."

Moreover, by using a virtual replica, the center could save the expense and time of sending Navy personnel to its Newport, R.I., location to try a mock-up.

The Naval Undersea Warfare Center is using a submarine's combat systems center as a test case. In modeling the hub of the submarine where commanders and sonar operators do their jobs, the center used virtual workplace software Qwaq Forums, from Qwaq.

The software works like other online immersive environments. All clients get a dedicated application, which offers them a menu of active forums. After a user logs on to the combat center forum, he or she can walk an avatar into an accurately depicted and fully operational combat center. The avatar can operate sonar console software, for instance, just as the user would do with the real thing.

"When you are looking at a Qwaq console, the screen being displayed to you is a live, running operational system on your network," Maxwell said. Testers are put through a scripted concept-of-operation exercise, where they undertake the normal functions of a mission. They can offer their insights with the design engineers through chat software that is part of the application.

The submarine environment is based on the computer-aided design files developed by engineers. One of the chief features of Qwaq — one missing in Second Life, for instance — is that it can ingest and rerender CAD drawings. "We can create an entire environment based on that CAD file," Maxwell said. Qwaq translates the CAD models into the Croquet format.

The software offers a number of other operational advantages, Maxwell said. For one, it has the ability to tap outside applications, such as software for the sonar operator's console, and run them in the virtual environment. Also, the software can run entirely behind a firewall, though Qwaq offers a hosted version, too. The client software uses a minimal number of ports to communicate with the main servers, which makes it easier to manage in terms of security. The server software is a virtual appliance, a Linux-based environment running within a VMware container.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.


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