An initiative by the U.S. military looks to develop what one researcher is calling ‘Google Earth on steroids’ that maps entire landscapes, helping to simulate environments and train soldiers.
In a report from National Defense, one researcher working on the project revealed that the system will be granular enough to map the inside of buildings and eventually entire cities which can then be used in simulated training exercises.
The military hopes to inform the creation of these realistic simulations, what they call Simulated Training Environments (STE), by building a comprehensive and highly detailed 3D map of locations around the globe — an initiative dubbed One World Terrain.
While the project may sound like a developer’s nightmare, recent advances in drone technology and databases of satellite imagery have brought the project firmly into reality.
Building a city the size of San Francisco would have previously taken an entire year and cost the military more than $1.7 million reports Defense One, but with new tools and information a team was able to reconstruct the city of nearly 900,000 people in about eight hours.
National Defense reports that researchers were able to use a mixture of commercially available software and unmanned aerial vehicles to map and recreate one compound in about an hour.
‘We were able to throw that UAS up, capture that in an hour, put it on the laptop, process it, and push it out,’ Jason Knowles, an army researchers involved in the project, told National Defense.
The images taken by drones are then stitched together using artificial intelligence.
This also means that because researchers have to spend less time actually designing the terrain and other natural environments, they can imbue more detail into other aspects of the simulation — enough to map out the interior of buildings.
How exactly the process of reconstructing a building’s interior works, however, is left somewhat vague in a report by National Defense.
‘The interior of buildings are now being fused and snapped inside of that 3D model,’ Knowles told the outlet, adding that his program has tools that ‘strip the outside of a building level by level and see what’s inside the building.
‘That’s obviously very useful for operators.’
As the project advances, Knowles told National Defense that he hopes to make the project ‘smart.’
For instance, instead of just simulating a wall, ideally the system would be able to simulate the wall’s underlying characteristics, like whether or not it could be breached by an explosive, munition, or vehicle.
Eventually, the models could even be deployed in the field, say researchers. By sending up a drone to scan an area, soldiers in the field could simulate missions on the spot before they deploy.
Though the ability to create systems has steadily advanced, according to National Defense, there’s still one major hurdle to bringing the models to life — storage.
Data contained in the simulations are gigabytes in size, meaning transmitting them would require top-tier connectivity.