Logo: University of Southern California

milliion vehicles

October 18, 2004 —
Every few months, a continent crackles into life on linked supercomputers. It is a place of huge cities and surrounding countryside with an intricate road network on which tens and even hundreds of thousands of trucks, tanks, mopeds, pedestrians and other vehicles move.
The newly created world is an electronic arena in which top military officers of the U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) can develop tactics for the future — an arena that has taken a significant leap in complexity in the past three years, facilitated by the computer skills supplied by the University of Southern California Information Sciences Institute (ISI).   

Using techniques developed over decades of academic research in the use of high performance supercomputers, the ISI-JFCOM team was able to make the simulation software run in a way that was scalable, i.e. not artificially limited to a small number of simulated participants.

 The ISI scientists collaborated with Caltech and the technical personnel who were active in the JFCOM effort, many of whom are employees of such companies as Lockheed Martin, Alion Sciences, SAIC, and Toyon.

 One experiment in this series, "Urban Resolve," is set in the year 2015.  JFCOM's says "it involves a U.S.-led coalition force that must confront and overcome a skilled adversary who is equipped with modern capabilities and is operating in an urban environment."

 Two groups of officers, the blue team leaders of the coalition, and the red team leaders of the adversary, control their forces from separate command posts, rooms full of monitors at which specially trained aides enter make the moves ordered by commanders.

 The aides are called "puckers" — a holdover from the days when military exercises were conducted on huge tables or floor areas, and soldiers pushed model ships or tanks, ("pucks") around with sticks.

 Two other computer control rooms complete the set up. A green team controls the "clutter"— vehicles, pedestrians, and other facets of the civilian population, not part of the forces of either side. Finally, a white room for the experiment umpires synthesizes a combined view of operation — a so-called "angel's eye view."

 Puckers for green, red and blue teams add vehicles to the world by selecting them from a menu of thousands of pre- written units of software code, each describing the behavior of a specific vehicle — taxi, tank (not just generic, but specific model), city bus, that have been created over the course of more than a decade.

 Some of the vehicles have very complex behavior sets, but even the simple robots “know” how fast to go on which roads, how to turn corners, how to avoid collisions andhow to stay on the road.  They are also time-sensitive.  They can crowd the roads during morning and afternoon rush hours.

 A select few — most of them combat units — are far more complex, endowed with artificial intelligence that allows them tof respond and react to changing circumstances in complex ways.

 Simple or complex, the population of the arena world used to be much smaller.

 "For a long time," says ISI project director Dan Davis, a marine veteran who has turned his combat-zone experience to good use in the virtual world, "there was an unacceptable ceiling for the number of the vehicles that could be simulated on individual workstations on a local network — they couldn't get much above about 30,000."

 Dr. Robert Lucas, director of the computational sciences division at ISI, led an effort that definitively broke this barrier, with a major event in 2002. That event was the record for SemiAutomated Forces so far: one million entities. "Now," says Davis, "while we are hesitant to say just exactly where the final limits may be, we see no immediate constraints on the delivered scalability."

 Thecurrent three-part experiment uses about 100,000 entities, employing cluster supercomputers located at two military supercomputing centers, one in Ohio and another in Maui. The experiments are directed from the Joint Experimentation Directorate in Suffolk, Va., with two other sites where controllers and analysts work: the U.S. Army Topographic Engineering Center at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command facilities in San Diego, California.

 ISI computer scientists Dr. Ke-Thia Yao, Gene Wagenbreth, Brian Barrett and John Tran also participated in the effort. Tran, who joined the team two years ago, may have an opportunity to see some of the issues he has been simulating take place for real as he has just been called up for six months reserve duty.
Pucker-eye view: a segment of the urban battlefield, with (left hand side) control toolbar. Note the green arrow at 10 o'clock inside the yellow circle, just above the roadway on the far side of the canal.

 The view from the green arrow viewpoint, The vehicles and shapes seen as dots and outlines on the display above resolve into buildings, trees and individual cars, motorcycles and pedestrians.
The JFCOM experiments are designed to help the U.S. better understand how to engage in combat in urban settings.  "Phase I will focus on using human intelligence," reads the Urban Resolve description, "along with advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) technologies, to gain comprehensive situational awareness and situational understanding of the urban environment and the adversary forces."

 "In ... Phase II, the friendly force will continue to employ leading-edge ISR capabilities to find and track the adversary. In Phase III the U.S.-led coalition will employ a fully equipped, combined or joint task force with modern air, land, sea, and space capabilities to maneuver effectively in the urban battlespace."

 "The outcomes of this joint and multinational experiment will expand our understanding of future urban conflict, from pre-crisis to post-conflict, while providing insights into today’s urban warfighting challenges. Without the use of high performance computers, these experiments would not have been conducted at the scale necessary to reflect the realities of 21st century urban environments," the JFCom description concludes.