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Navy Deploys Augmented and Virtual Reality for Many Tasks

Everyone, it seems, wants to see the BEMR Lab.

U.S. Navy scientists and engineers run the shop devoted to virtual reality and augmented reality at the Navy’s research complex at Point Loma.

Some 6,000 people, including high-ranking military and government officials, visited with lab staff last year, either coming to the secure SPAWAR Systems Center Pacific facility, or visiting lab representatives for demonstrations on the road.

Both augmented reality — the combination of real-world images and computer-generated add-ons you find in games such as “Pokémon Go” — and virtual reality are poised to change multiple aspects of the Navy, including training, maintenance and systems integration, lab representatives said.

Some industries, notably oil and gas, have already put such technology to work, while other vertical markets are lagging. Navy representatives said their lab represents the workplace of the future.

BEMR stands for “Battlespace Exploitation of Mixed Reality.”

A Valuable Tool

Inside the dimly lit BEMR lab, Lt. Clay Greunke of SPAWAR headquarters showed how a person might use virtual reality as a tool to install a new server cabinet in an interior space of a ship. Using virtual reality goggles, Greunke called up a computer model of a typical, cramped ship compartment. He then introduced a computer-generated model of a server cabinet to the space, and then moved it around with a handheld tool, seeing where it might fit best among all the other features of the compartment (such as junction boxes).

The models are very accurate, lab officials said — to within 2 mm, or less than one-eighth of an inch.

The process beats sending an engineer out to the field to determine where the best place for the server cabinet might be, said Stephen Cox, chief engineer at SPAWAR Systems Center Pacific. Paying engineers for fieldwork gets expensive, Cox said.

Two-dimensional paper diagrams of ships have their limits, Greunke said. There are stories of paper diagrams being 3 inches off to 1 foot off.

The scanned ship project won the BEMR lab an innovation award from Navy Secretary Ray Mabus last year.

Such technology can also be used to train a sailor for a shipboard job without even bringing him aboard a ship, lab officials said.

Scanning Ships

The BEMR lab uses a commercial, off-the-shelf Faro Technologies Inc. X330 laser scanner, which has a price tag in the tens of thousands of dollars, to scan several ships, including the bulk of their compartments.

One of the earliest scans was of the amphibious transport dock ship USS San Diego.

Ships make big files. “At the end of the day you’re looking at terabytes, easily, for a ship,” said Mark Bilinski, a SPAWAR scientist with a doctorate in mathematics who has worked extensively on the project.

Navy engineers have plans to scan seven more ships, including destroyers and littoral combat ships.

‘Target Practice’

The lab staff also showed off GunnAR, an augmented reality system for people manning a .50 caliber on-deck machine gun.

Usually an officer gives commands to gunners over a “big brick radio” in an environment that can be noisy and chaotic, said lab director Heidi Buck. Making things all the more confusing is that the officer is giving orders to multiple gunners in a process open to misinterpretation. GunnAR — which was the brainchild of a lieutenant junior grade — gives the gunner a Daqri-brand helmet with a heads-up display showing targets as well as commands to fire. The display also pointed out friendly and enemy forces.

The Navy recently tested it during a live fire exercise on the USS Bunker Hill.

(I tried a mock-up in the lab and I have to admit, I was not Navy material. It was all very surreal, all the more so with the lab director at my elbow, advising me politely that several small boats were about to ram my ship.)

In remarks several days earlier at a National Defense Industrial Association event, Buck said virtual reality and augmented reality technology could help aircraft mechanics do their jobs. Defense contractors attending the event asked which Navy offices were funding the research. The Office of Naval Research seemed to be the main underwriter, with the Naval Sea Systems Command and Naval Air Systems Command also contributing.

SPAWAR stands for Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command.

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