ADVANCED SIMULATION SYSTEMS HELP SHORTEN
THE LEARNING CURVE FOR SURFACE WARFARE OFFICERS
BY NICK ADDE, SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
When Lt. Cmdr. Karl Brandl was commissioned as an ensign in 2001, he reported
to his first ship and immediately took
to the task of qualifying. Like any junior
officer, Brandl had to prove his ability
to serve as a surface-warfare officer and
officer of the deck.
Largely because the training regimen he completed before stepping aboard the Spruance-class
destroyer USS John Young simply was not as advanced
as it is today, the process took time. Now, while a
learning curve still exists, the turnaround can be
exponentially faster — particularly from a training
Brandl and his colleagues at the Surface Warfare
Officers School at Naval Station Newport, R.I., attribute the improvement to the Conning Officer Virtual
Environment (COVE) system, a virtual-reality tool that
made its debut in the classroom a decade ago.
“You can take someone that has almost no experi-
ence and put them in situations you’d never put them in
on an actual ship,” Brandl said. “You can let them learn
how a ship handles, how it feels in different places.”
Even when the COVE system was new, users became
convinced quickly that it would be a powerful tool.
“When I took command of my first ship, I came
through [here] for my training first,” said Capt. Scott
Robertson, now the commanding officer of the Surface
Warfare Officers School.
COVE enabled him to take command in 2010 of the
frigate USS Rodney M. Davis — a class of ship he had
never stepped foot upon before.
“The level of training and the certification process
we have here using COVE prepared me. I had to bring
the ship into a very challenging port. I could do it,
because of the training,” Robertson said.
If a student makes a mistake while using COVE,
the instruction stops and the error becomes a learning
experience. The officer can repeat the sequence over
and over until he or she gets it right. Unlike the real
world, no one gets hurt. No property gets damaged.
As the term “virtual reality” would imply, COVE
employs systems common to those in video games.
In one iteration, COVE can manifest itself as a small
workstation, with the trainee wearing a headset and
goggles that provide a 360-degree panorama of a scenario he or she might encounter while standing watch.
In another, a trainee can use an automated system
to give engine and rudder orders or tug commands.
A larger system, like those in use at the Surface Warfare Officers School, employs three large video-display
monitors and provides trainees with a 120-degree view.
Software can make a change in the disposition of the
virtual “ship” based on the trainee’s order.
Users of the larger system can control their view
with the joystick. Releasing it brings them back to a
front view. The accompanying software even allows
for the presence of a virtual “helmsman” to control
the “rudder,” and a “lee helmsman” to control simulated engines.
“A conning officer here, or an officer in training
[elsewhere], can experience all the natural effects that
can be placed on a ship at any time,” Robertson said.
“You can increase on- or off-setting winds, and currents, in any direction. You can make it snowy or foggy.
A young officer will have to experience what that’s like,
in a narrow channel with low visibility,” he said.
Most importantly, Robertson said, officers at the
school learn how their ship would interact with other
vessels, such as merchant ships, or a small fishing boat
or sailboat that adjusts its course rapidly. They learn,
in essence, the rules of the road.
COVE systems now are commonplace at Navy learning centers. Some 60 are in use around the world,
Robertson said — at the basic division officer courses
at Norfolk, Va., and San Diego naval stations; the
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