D-RAPCON 3D Virtual Prototyping Environment
Creating a virtual three-dimensional (3D) environment to represent a proposed new system enables engineers and customers to visualize a finished product. Such a virtual environment was developed for the Deployable Radar Approach Control (D-RAPCON) system. D-RAPCON is Raytheon’s “air traffic control system in a box” and brings instant air traffic control to the battlefield or disaster site. It is a fully deployable system consisting of primary and secondary air traffic control (ATC) radars integrated with a rapid set-up radar antenna, a self-contained operations center, an ATC voice communications system and secure networked data communications.
Early in the proposal process, Raytheon engineers were looking for a cost-effective way to demonstrate the “look and feel” of the proposed system to their potential customer. The Raytheon Interactive Multimedia Training group based in El Paso, Texas, demonstrated a virtual environment developed for the Patriot Air Defense System to engineers from the DRAPCON team. That demonstration resulted in initial funding for a virtual D-RAPCON prototype consisting of an interactive “firstcut” 3D model of the interior and exterior portions of the operations shelter (see Figure 1). This first version of the virtual prototype allowed the user to move around and inside the shelter, open doors, turn on lights, and begin to “unpack” the equipment inside, all in a virtual 3D environment before any actual hardware had been built. It made evident that a virtual prototype could effectively portray not only portability and ease of deployment, but also size and, to some extent, capabilities of the system.
Over a period of a few months, the 3D virtual prototype development team created the remaining elements of the system and added the capability to handle user interaction. All major components, including shelters, radar, power units, and environmental units became accessible to the user for viewing and evaluation (see Figure 2).
3D Studio Max® , part of the Autodesk® suite of design software, was used for development, rendering, and compositing of the virtual DRAPCON system as well as eventual animation of major items and interiors. Existing system CAD drawings were imported by the tool wherever possible to reduce drawing time while imported photographs of an expandable Girchner shelter provided appropriate dimensions, textures and relative sizing for the operations shelter. The Unity 3D® game engine was used to incorporate interactive elements which allowed the user to move in and around the virtual environment. A “first person” environment was featured to give the demonstrator a look similar to that of a video game, both familiar to computer “gamers” and simple for new users to learn.
The 3D virtual prototype team worked with system design engineers throughout the modeling phase to ensure system fidelity and accuracy. Continual reviews of updated system exteriors and interiors by the engineers provided insight into system design, ergonomics and functional layout.
The virtual prototype allowed engineers to move about the deployed system in a variety of environments, including desert, tropical and snow covered terrain, both during the day and at night. The virtual prototype also demonstrated how the actual system was designed to store the system components inside the collapsed shelter during shipping and deployment to a site and, using a computer mouse, allowed the user to “virtually” unpack and setup the racks of equipment, displays, consoles and chairs. The user was then able to “walk” from one unit to another, move inside, open equipment racks, and manipulate controls and indicators.
Occasionally, movement within the 3D virtual environment would trigger additional system design reviews. For example, while reviewing the layout in a night environment, an engineer “walked” out of the shelter and left the door open. As he rotated the view looking back at the shelter from the outside, he realized the interior light was still on. This prompted a quick design review ensuring the system automatically switched to blackout lights when any exterior door was opened.
The D-RAPCON team required a mobile prototyping and demonstration capability to present the system to potential customers during office visits and at trade shows. The Unity 3D game engine’s multiplatform capability enabled repurposing of the simulated system environment to run on mobile devices such as the iPad, iPhone and Android-based tablets (see Figure 3).
Further enhancements to the mobile 3D virtual prototype enabled an example maintenance training lesson to be demonstrated as it actually would be viewed on an iPad. Users could follow instructions on the screen to run diagnostic tests, select and use tools, and remove and replace components (see Figure 4).
The virtual prototype provides a mechanism to address customer concerns and mitigate perceived design risks early in the development process versus later after designs are complete and changes are more costly. It also provides a foundation for meeting future system training requirements. Although virtual prototype development in support of a proposed system is not new, the availability of gaming tools for this application provides both a novel and cost-effective implementation approach. As both virtual prototype development tools and developers improve, the ability to quickly and inexpensively create virtual system environments prior to, or concurrent with, early system concept and proposal activities will become the norm. The models created during the concept development and proposal activities can then be updated and repurposed to support follow-on system design and training tasks. As Raytheon experience grows with these virtual prototyping technologies, we continue to discover new and better ways to apply the technology to help improve our products and make them more cost effective.
Terry L. Stroud, Ph.D.
Share This Story