Simulation Software vs. the Terrorists
A year ago, the Homeland Security Dept., the FBI, and other agencies conducted five-day drills near Seattle and Chicago. As part of this first-ever, national counterterrorism exercise, 8,500 people from some 100 organizations responded to simulated car bombs and biological attacks. Hundreds of "patients" -- mostly drama students -- showed up at the local hospitals faking flu-like symptoms or cuts and burns. All told, the exercise was a success, but it cost upwards of $16 million and stole precious time from doctors who could have been treating real patients.
Wouldn't it be nice to accomplish the same thing with less cost and less lost time? New simulation and modeling software just might do the trick. Long used for visualizing oil and gas fields or for designing cars, the technology began seeping into homeland security applications soon after the September 11 attacks. The first such products and prototypes, created by the likes of General Dynamics (GD ), Autodesk (ADSK ), and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) are now being put to the test.
If these programs do the job, software simulating the aftermaths of terrorist attacks could grow from less than a $100 million market today to $10 billion a year, estimates Charles Foundyller, CEO of Daratech, a Cambridge (Mass.) consultancy. To reach that size, though, the government must first require owners of high-rise buildings and other structures to create electronic schematics of their buildings. These digital floor plans could then be used for more detailed and elaborate training drills.
But even without such a mandate, software companies are seeing growing demand for disaster-training programs. Medical teams, police forces, and firefighters in 133 major U.S. cities must now regularly prepare for terrorist emergencies. And massive national training exercises seem to be increasing in frequency: Homeland Security conducted the latest one in May. New counterterrorism training centers have popped up in West Virginia and Oklahoma. And with the cost of simulation software having fallen from as much as $1 million a few years ago to about $50,000 today, state and regional agencies can finally afford it, says Brad Sharp, emergency-response program manager at software maker Autodesk, which came out with a product for first responders last October.
Here's how the software, in its simplest form, works: Trainees can access maps of sewers and water mains, as well as graphs and tables indicating the status of important supplies, such as bandages. The software generates maps pinpointing the exact location of firefighters and equipment, and it runs what-if scenarios -- such as what would happen if a water main were to burst, says Roger Smith, chief technology officer for the simulation business unit at Titan (TTN ). His company hopes to sell this type of software for use by Customs and the Coast Guard.
Training software also can branch out from the exact spot where a terrorist might strike. Programs from companies such as Autodesk allow a commander who's coordinating emergency rescue efforts to access the floor plans of nearby buildings, check weather conditions, even chart the demographics of the community affected, says Sharp.
Beyond that are the truly futuristic programs. Researchers at RPI in Troy, N.Y., are hunkered over software that could be used by robots sent to help rescue people trapped in collapsed buildings. The robots would snap images of the rubble and use sensors to assess the stability of the fallen pieces, says Jeff Trinkle, chairman of the institute's computer science department. The software would then analyze the data and create a model of the wreckage to help rescuers determine what areas are stable and which pieces to tackle first.
Disaster-simulation programs aren't all aimed at the likely scenarios once a terrorist attack occurs. They also can help uncover potential security threats. A system from computer maker Silicon Graphics (SGI ) and simulation-software maker Harris (HRS ) has helped Canadian authorities prepare for the G-8 summit. The system used SGI's Onyx computer to recreate, from satellite and aerial photographs, a virtual city that security planners could fly through while sitting in the comfort of a movie theater.
The software allowed them, among other things, to measure distances from a particular window to the street where the motorcade would pass, to see if gunfire from that spot would reach its target. They could also model the way glass shatters in a blast to figure out how to contain injuries.
While Silicon Graphics received about 5% of its $962 million in revenue in fiscal 2003, ended in June, from homeland security applications, that percentage could double within a couple of years, says Graham Beasley, the company's manager of federal business development.
Still, training remains the biggest potential application -- and those programs are getting more lifelike every day. Since September, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has been testing virtual reality equipment and software from defense powerhouse General Dynamics to prepare for terror attacks on train and bus stations.
The software, developed through a $300,000 grant from the Federal Transit Administration, uses more than 1,000 photos that recreate Boston's South Station in 3-D, inside and outside. Trainees wearing 3-D goggles can move around the virtual station by using a joystick, which also lets them select tools, such as handcuffs or a flashlight.
After the software is modified so the simulated station looks more generic, other cities might use it by yearend, says Robert Anschuetz, technical manager at General Dynamics' advanced information-systems division. "Eventually we hope to create a system where the trainee could even interrogate passengers," says Anschuetz. "We also want the number of virtual people used in our simulations to go from up to a hundred now to thousands."
Indeed, many companies expect such simulation software to take off within a year, as various government agencies finally start to see the trickle of funds from Homeland Security turning into a flow. As that happens, many emergency responders will opt for virtual reality, since it provides many of the benefits of real-life training -- minus the real headaches.
By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore.