The America's Army series of video games has helped the Army attract a huge amount of recruits, and now a souped-up version of the same game is training combat soldiers to handle explosive ordnance disposal in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other theaters.
Players use the actual robot controllers to operate a robot avatar on-screen, which then navigates obstacles and attempts to defuse bombs. In the game, players have to restart if their robot is blown up due to error. That's substantially better then the risk of losing expensive equipment in a real-life training simulation. More importantly—given supply chain issues that reportedly mean some soldiers don't get robots to train with—it is the closest to the real thing many aspiring bomb defusers will get until they are abroad, where mistakes mean far more than a do-over.
Army software engineer Bernard Reger recently spoke about developing the project:
The challenge: our Soldiers in Explosive Ordnance Disposal (that’s mil-speak for bomb squad) use state-of-the-art robots, such as Qinetiq TALON and iRobot PackBot, to disarm or destroy explosive devices placed by our enemies. Soldiers want to practice on the robot as much as possible before they are tasked on a mission with life or death consequences, but most of them are already being used and aren’t always available for training.
Work on the modded version of America's Army began in 2003.
The Defense Department has made extensive portions of the America's Army platform available to developers, with animations, meshes, textures, components, and objects all accessible to military software developers. While the mass market game is intended primarily as a PR tool for the Army, military software developers have successfully used the platform to build simulators for a variety of weapons and technologies.
Reger and the U.S. government recently took a joint patent out on the robot simulator in what appears to be an attempt to keep defense contractors or foreign militaries from developing similar, competing products.
There are even modded versions of the game that veer into non-weapons territory; Special Forces soldiers use a customized version of America's Army for what the military calls "role-playing negotiation" and "soft skills training." Yes, all those hours of playing The Sims can apparently come in handy if one joins Special Forces.
[Image: U.S. Army]