The port city of Bristol in South West England is home to many companies operating in the UK defence sector, not least because of the co-location in that city of the UK MoD’s Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) organisation. One such company is Systems Engineering and Assessment (SEA), part of the Cohort Group; Dim Jones took the opportunity of attendance at the CAS Conference in Bristol to visit them.

Cohort plc comprises four major divisions – SEA, MASS, EID, and Marlborough Communications Ltd (MCL). SEA is headquartered at Beckington Castle in Somerset, has facilities at Barnstaple, Devon, Aberdeen and Bristol, overseas presences in Canada and Malaysia, and employs just over 300 people; this puts it in the SME bracket, although the company has operated as a prime, as a sub-contractor and on its own. In the defence sector, the company specialises in training and simulation solutions, logistics and planning software, marine combat systems and dismounted soldier systems. Non-defence interests are in traffic infrastructure management, traffic enforcement, and sub-sea control and power systems. SEA’s sphere of interest lies in a broad north-west to south-east swathe starting in Canada - where they have a joint venture company, JSK Naval Support Inc. - to Australia. There is also business in South America as a result of the Chilean Navy’s purchase of ex-Royal Navy Type 23 frigates.

Marine combat systems include torpedo and decoy launcher systems, acoustic and non-acoustic sensors, sonar arrays and echo sounders. SEA’s communications systems, applicable to both surface and underwater vessels, have been fitted to the Astute-Class SSN, HMS Ambush, and will be fitted to the first of the Vanguard-class SSBNs in 2018. Work on dismounted soldier systems is mainly in research and experimentation, and SEA is the lead industry partner for the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and the Dismounted Close Combat (DCC) research programme. In the fields of training and simulation, SEA develops advanced physics-based modelling applications, designed to de-risk complex, expensive and hazardous activities; these have included: predicting the recovery performance of the NATO Submarine Rescue System in high sea states; investigating operating limits for helicopters and UAS from naval vessels; and modelling the physical behaviour of small boat launch and recovery systems. SEA’s procedural training systems cover airspace management, maintainer procedures, and flight deck operations; it is on flight deck operations that my visit focused.

SEA’s DECKsim system has been in service with the RN for about 10 years, for the training of Flight Deck Officers (FDO). The original version is a static set-up at RNAS Culdrose, which comprises a 6m x 3m screen, with surround sound. This allows full interaction between student and instructor, and also allows students not actively engaged to observe what is going on. However, it requires the training audience to travel to Culdrose which, being about as far southwest as one can get in Britain, is a time-consuming and expensive business, and best suited to ab-initio training. The RN (and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, whose ships also operate RN aircraft), also have a refresher and currency requirement, and these call for a more flexible system. Currency, of course, can be maintained on-shore or while at sea, using live aircraft; however, this has some disadvantages: it is expensive, although there may be training value for the aircraft involved; aircraft may not be available to suit the training programme; live flying only allows training with the type of aircraft available; and the weather and sea conditions (pitch and roll of the deck) are as they are on the day, which may not suit the training aims. Accordingly, SEA has developed a portable version of DECKsim, which comprises a laptop, lightweight auxiliary screens, a set of VR goggles and a COTS gesture-recognition device; this whole system fits into a small suitcase. One instructor can, therefore, take training to the students, ashore or afloat, where the small size of the system allows it to be used on board, usually in the flight deck hangar area.

If a greater degree of student/instructor interaction, or wider participation, is required, the goggles and headset can be replaced with, or augmented by, a small screen and speakers. The visual system is SEA’s own, and depicts a wide variety of ships and helicopters. In a frigate or destroyer, a flight deck crew of four assists the FDO, and these personnel will probably have other duties in the ship. Training sessions consist of a logical sequence of serials, including approach to the ship and deck, landing, deck lock and lashing down, refuelling, rotors running on-deck or in the hover, underslung loads and lift-off and departure. The gesture-recognition technology recognises the FDO’s hand signals, and the other virtual entities – be it the aircraft or the flight deck crew – react accordingly. Should the student need re-briefing during a serial, the instructor can initiate an automated landing.

Augmented reality used for training purposes
The user gets sensor data fused over a live environment, augmenting reality that can be used for training purposes or for situational awareness. Image credit: SEA.

The Royal Norwegian Navy has the full DECKsim system in service, and recently ordered the portable version. DECKsim is also in use in the offshore oil industry with Airbus Helicopters. Oil rigs have slightly different constraints: a static deck, but numerous fixed obstructions. Many oilfield operations have enough live aircraft movements to cover refresher and currency requirements, but the environment does not lend itself to ab-initio training.

The requirements for Flight Deck Operations training for the new Queen Elizabeth Class (QEC carriers) will be markedly more complex than for frigate and destroyer – multiple types, fixed- and rotary-wing, and multi-aircraft simultaneous operations. Developments in the system, specifically for multi-spot vessels, are modular and scalable, and can be used for individual or low-level collective training for FLYCO, DOO, FDO, Helicopter Controller, Flight Deck personnel and the Officer of the Watch. It will be able to operate on board or ashore, and includes: fully-configurable virtual views of the ship and flight deck; fixed view of the flight deck from the FLYCO tower; an air traffic control view with the ability to manipulate aircraft flight path and status; and plan views of upper and lower decks, to facilitate deck planning. In addition to refresher and currency training, in the event of a planned change of aircraft complement, DECKsim could be used for ‘mission rehearsal’.

In addition to supporting the training of flight deck operations, SEA is also applying its physics-based simulation capabilities to de-risk future ship/helicopter operations. The Ship/Air Interface Framework (SAIF) simulation, developed by SEA for the UK MoD, is now being used to simulate Chinook operations from the new Tide-Class tankers, with a future requirement to simulate Chinook ops from the QEC carriers. SEA has also simulated Replenishment At Sea (RAS) operations between QEC and a range of existing in-service support ships, providing independent guidance on the safe range of operating parameters in varying sea-state conditions.

Another product under development at SEA is an augmented reality bridge situational awareness tool. This superimposes, on the real-world view, information on all entities within a selected area, whether visible from the bridge or not, and with 360o coverage unimpeded by the ship’s superstructure. The information can come from a variety of sources, including radar, sonar and AIS, and obviates the necessity for the bridge operators to ‘go head down’ to consult the various sensor read-outs and correlate them for themselves. The user could also be selective in the returns shown, for example by choosing air, surface or sub-surface contacts only. This tool could have much wider applications: the CO in his cabin could have a similar display, and the Principal Warfare Officer (PWO), fighting the war from the Ops Room, could obtain a sensor-fused representation of the battlespace. Lastly, the system, with the addition of virtual or constructive entities, could be used for live or synthetic training; the potential implications for the submarine commander’s (Perisher) course are significant.

In sum, this was a most entertaining and informative visit to a relatively small, yet diverse, company that could have a major impact on future naval operations and training.

Originally published in Issue 2, 2018 of MS&T.