TCS Daily


Crash Test Smarties

By Michael Standaert - January 12, 2004 12:00 AM

Gone may be the days synthetic mannequins strapped with sensors and electrodes are hurled at break-neck speed into walls for the very purpose of breaking their necks. Researchers at the University of Iowa College of Engineering are currently developing computer simulated 'virtual humans' to take their place.

In mid-December, the U of I Center for Computer Aided Design (CCAD) received word that their project two years in the making would get a significant boost to the tune of a $2.5 million one-year renewable contract from the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Command Center (TACOM) to begin developing 'virtual soldiers' to test future tanks.

These future virtual soldiers are not your usual crash test grunts. Digital humans would be introduced early into the design cycles dealing with testing, assembly of mechanical parts and correct location of human operated systems in the machines.

"What we are doing is adding the intelligence so much more so they respond on their own," says Karim Abdel-Malek, principal project investigator and associate professor of mechanical engineering at CCAD. "The Army is interested in reducing the cost of everything they do, doing it faster to design a tank from start to finish could possibly take up to ten years. They first design it on the computer and do a lot of tests, stress analysis and aerodynamics. All this is done on the computer, until the point they have to test it, and actually have to make it."

It's this point where Abdel-Malek and his team of 34 researchers hope to make their most significant strides.

Currently, after the design phase a prototype must be built and tested, usually by soldiers in the field. After finding out what the kinks are in the systems through in-the-field human testing, designers must go back to their virtual drawing boards and work them out. This technology would make that whole process obsolete.

"What they call the human factors in testing are significant," says Abdel-Malek. "It's not just the time, it's the cost involved, the resources, the personnel. That process takes a lot of time and money."

After hearing about a call from the Pentagon for integrating this type of technology, CCAD submitted their proposal and won the bid. While their research into this technology has been going on for two years, the influx of funding will help Abdel-Malek and his team go many steps further.

"Our idea is to create virtual humans to go into the computer and test the environment while it is on the computer, before it's done," Abdel-Malek says. "We can't really put a figure on how much would be saved, we tried before but the difference is so wide. The idea of not having a human test something before if you send it directly to the assembly line, is so much faster than first making the prototype that has to be tested. If you can avoid making that first prototype, you are in heaven."

Another advantage is the ala carte ability the technology gives designers, says Abdel-Malek. The virtual humans and soldiers can be made to order with a click of the mouse. They can be male, female, of any body type, race, behavior, motion and weight. They are bio-mechanically and anatomically correct, and as intelligent as virtual humans can currently be. TACOM hopes to use these systems first on tanks, as well as evaluating its Future Combat Systems (FCS) including unmanned, satellite-guided craft.

"They have enough intelligence that they would be able to respond very quickly and very accurately as if a real person was in that tank," says Abdel-Malek. "And it has dual use, not just for tanks and weapons, but anything used by humans in terms of products. Eventually we would like to see those programs that we are currently designing used by other industries."

Among other corporations currently working with CCAD to integrate these testing systems for civilian purposes are Matag, Amana, Hann Industries, John Deere, Caterpillar, says Abdel-Malek.


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