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University of Iowa News Release

Dec. 12, 2003

UI Researchers Receive $2.5 Million Contract For Virtual Soldiers

A team of researchers in the University of Iowa College of Engineering's Center for Computer Aided Design (CCAD) has received a $2.548 million one-year, renewable contract from the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Command Center (TACOM) to develop computer-simulated humans.

Called "digital humans," the computer screen characters resemble real people in anatomy, behavior, motion and intelligence. Karim Abdel-Malek, associate professor of mechanical engineering and project principal investigator, says that digital humans have the potential to save time and money in the testing and evaluation of products, equipment, vehicles and armaments prior to manufacture. The new contract will further TACOM's vision to use digital human technology in the design and evaluation of its Future Combat Systems (FCS), including such things as unmanned, satellite-guided vehicles.

"The ultimate goal of this work is to enable new technologies aimed at reducing or eliminating the need for prototyping of large-scale ground vehicles and armaments, by including digital human technology early in the design cycle," says Abdel-Malek, (right) who directs the UI's Digital Humans and Virtual Reality Laboratories, as well as the project formally called Virtual Soldier Research (VSR). "Working with TACOM will give us significant leverage to advance this technology."

The project will introduce digital humans early in the design cycle to answer questions dealing with the assembly of mechanical parts and the location and ergonomics of control levers. Such human factors issues currently require significant physical testing of a real machine by soldiers.

Abdel-Malek says that digital humans must be sophisticated enough to respond to scenarios dealing with in-theater tactical operations. He says: "A digital soldier positioned inside a tank can be asked the level of his or her comfort while the vehicle is cruising over rough terrain at 44 miles an hour and while the soldier is attempting to monitor an active display or activate a weapon. Indeed, these 'what if' scenarios must be answered by an intelligent human model that has the capacity to feel the motion, to feel discomfort, to evaluate the situation and to visualize and process the environment."

Abdel-Malek and his colleagues note that the UI research will combine rigorous engineering methods with components adapted from the entertainment and gaming industries to provide a road map for technology development. The work complements existing expertise at the university and brings together researchers in engineering, medicine, animation and the military, according to TACOM and UI officials.

"It is obvious with current industry trends of building complete systems digitally in virtual worlds, that the human interface issue must be addressed as early as technology permits to control system cost. Therefore this program and the applications that result are a necessary and logical step to take current technology and approaches to the next level," says Kyle Nebel, TACOM program manager.

"These advances in the creation of synthetic environments are a very strong indication of the university's leadership in engineering education and research," says Derek Willard, associate vice president for research and special assistant to the president for governmental relations. "It also provides great opportunities for industrial collaboration. The potential of this dual-use technology is of great interest to manufacturers seeking ways to streamline the time it takes to get products to the marketplace."

In addition to Abdel-Malek, other UI project researchers are: Jasbir Arora, VSR associate director and professor of civil and environmental engineering; Nicole Grosland, assistant professor of biomedical engineering; Ray Han and Jia Lu, professor and assistant professor, respectively, of mechanical and industrial engineering; Colby Swan, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; Soura Dasgupta and Andrew Williams, professor and assistant professor, respectively, of electrical and computer engineering; and Thomas Cook, professor of occupational and environmental health in the UI College of Public Health.

The UI has fundamental enabling technologies for simulation, modeling, design, optimization, and dynamics based on a history of successful research and technology transfer. The Digital Humans and Virtual Reality Laboratories in CCAD were established to perform digital prototyping and design with humans in the loop. This integrated effort among several research groups, coupled with collaborative efforts with leading industry partners, will create new technologies in design, soldier-machine interfacing, human factors, and virtual training.

For more information about this project, please visit http://www.digital-humans.org/ or contact Deborah-hampton@uiowa.edu.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 301, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

CONTACT: Gary Galluzzo, writer, 319-384-0009, gary-galluzzo@uiowa.edu.