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Simulator Provides Safe, Fun, Less Costly Training

Wed February 09, 2000 - Southeast Edition
Angela B. Hurni

The Virginia Modeling, Analysis & Simulation Center (VMASC) has teamed up with the Hampton Roads Utility and Heavy Contractors Association (HRUHCA) to develop technology that will enhance the secondary school curriculum which teaches heavy equipment operations to high school students. The Pruden Center for Industry and Technology entered the partnership by providing the classes where the software has been demonstrated and will, hopefully, become part of the curriculum.

VMASC created the backhoe simulator software, with Dr. Roland R. Mielke, technical director as the project lead, a year and a half ago in response to a need presented to them by HRUHCA. The desktop simulator uses dual joysticks and a three-dimensional visual scene similar to the operator’s perspective from the driver’s seat of a backhoe. At this point, the backhoe is the only type of heavy equipment to be simulated. It was created to show the capability of the technology at VMASC while meeting the needs of HRUHCA.

Located in Suffolk, VA, VMASC was established in Oct. 1996 and officially opened July 1997 with state funding. It is one of eight Enterprise Centers in the College of Engineering and Technology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. The purpose of an enterprise center is to match the needs of industry and the civic community with the expertise that exists at the university. VMASC, in particular, strives to match its expertise in modeling and simulation with the needs of industry.

“Industry doesn’t know they have the need,” explained Dr. Thomas W. Mastaglio, executive director of VMASC. “Our center has an additional function to be sort of a cheerleader for the technology. We’re out there trying to show people that this technology has value to them.”

ODU, state and local governments, and a growing network of private member companies support VMASC. The center has 63 industry members, 28 government and affiliate members, and nine members in the area of academics. The industry members consist of two categories: application partners and technology partners. Dr. Mastaglio considers the application partners as “would-be users.” They are the people for whom the technology is made, and the application is provided to them. Technology partners, on the other hand, are the technological companies and systems integrators that are interested in the simulation business or want to learn more about the market.

“Sometimes there are no technology partners, but there’s almost always an application partner,” said Mastaglio.

HRUHCA, based in Chesapeake, VA, is the application partner that proposed the simulator project to VMASC. The association was searching for better techniques to train heavy equipment operators and ways to interest today’s youth in the career field.

According to Alex W. Oliver, executive director of HRUHCA, the simulator software was also developed to “create more interest on the part of companies who make heavy equipment and to help in designing a virtual reality type program for the future.” Oliver lists the benefits of the simulator as less costly and safer than using actual equipment and more interesting than basic classroom instruction.

The Pruden Center for Industry and Technology in Suffolk, VA, a regional public school serving Suffolk and Isle of Wight County, has used the backhoe simulator as a demo in the high school level course: Utility/Heavy Construction Technology. The course and the instructor are certified by the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER).

Peggy Wade, director of Pruden Center, said that the school would continue to use the program as long as VMASC makes it available to them.

“The students use real equipment too,” explained Wade, “but the software expands the amount of time the students have to get experience.”

HRUHCA supplied some of the funding for the development of the simulator, which is presently being used only as a demo because it is a very expensive and comprehensive program. To continue the development, grant money and interest on the part of manufacturing companies are needed.

VMASC has completed many projects that show the usefulness of simulation technology, including projects in the areas of transportation planning, port operations, urban planning, and disaster preparedness, to name a few. Other projects that VMASC is currently working on are a 3D-visualization tool for the City of Portsmouth, VA, and a simulation of a casting facility for a manufacturing company in Hampton, VA.

Due, in part, to the success of VMASC, Old Dominion University is one of only a few universities in the world with master’s and doctoral programs in modeling and simulation.

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