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Communications of the ACM

Distributed Mission Training: Teams, Virtual Reality, and Real-Time Networking

Distributed Mission Training (DMT) is a revolutionary team-training paradigm currently evolving at the U.S. Department of Defense, especially in the Air Force. The objective of DMT is to concurrently train people in team efforts involving coordination, communication, and decision making. The teams may not necessarily be co-located and could be engaged in independent as well as coordinated tasks at remote sites.

While the U.S. is pioneering these technologies, several other countries such as U.K., France, Israel, and the Netherlands are also seriously engaged in such initiatives.

The rapid expansions in the dimensions and complexity of contemporary team missions are leading to a tremendous emphasis on the needs for effective, integrated training systems to provide realistic environments for the acquisition of sophisticated and multifaceted team skills. However, such training has yet to come of age. One of the primary reasons is increasing resource limitations such as the availability of actual equipment for training purposes, costs associated with real-world training environments, and safety and security reasons that could forbid mission training in real operating scenarios. This predicament severely restricts the scope of live, integrated team-training possibilities. Also, team efforts could involve several geographically dispersed individuals operating from different platforms at remote sites, who need to work together in a coordinated manner to achieve the mission objectives. From a practical standpoint, it could be very difficult, or even impossible, to assemble them in a single place to train together.

DMT is still very much the state-of-the-art. It is expected to become the state-of-practice in the next millennium.

These constraints are especially evident in military training programs that require multiple air crews operating diverse units such as aircraft and other weapon systems in different places. They need to train, communicate, coordinate, and work together to achieve common objectives. Until recently, such training was usually conducted in isolated programs at different bases using both the actual equipment and simulated environments. Consequently, the full potential of integrated team training has yet to be realized. In fact, it is somewhat paradoxical that while people are required to operate as integrated teams in real-world situations, the constraints in training do not allow them to practice such missions beforehand and prepare for eventual demands.

The answers to these daunting challenges lie in combining three evolving streams of technology: VR, remote networking, and multimedia (image, data, voice, video) communicationthe backbone of DMT. While many useful VR applications are fast emerging in diverse areas such as medicine, engineering design, scientific visualization, and education, human training is a fundamental area where it is critically needed. Indeed, it has already made a significant impact. Training teams of people to coordinate and work together toward a common objective is a big challenge. VR, coupled with powerful image processing and distributed networking technologies, presents a formidable array of technological solutions to this challenge. DMT is a concept that originated from this perspective, and has evolved into a prototypical technology level that leads to experimentation, analysis, and further development.

DMT is based on three principles: teamsnot individualsexecute missions, team skills are built uponbut different fromindividual skills, and a combination of the three technology streams could enable creative training opportunities that overcome the limitations of time, distance, and training resources. Consequently, DMT is strongly emerging as an effective mode of team training. A large industrial support base consisting of companies engaged in training methodologies and systems, virtual simulation platforms, networking, and multimedia database systems is rapidly developing. Additionally, these efforts are sparking considerable research on team training and the associated technologies at universities, federal laboratories, and the industrial sector.

Although DMT as a concept has originated from the training needs of the military, it has far-reaching implications to team training in numerous other fields as well. Training commercial pilots, air traffic controllers, navigators, instrumentation specialists, and assembly-line workers all require real-time coordination and communication. The DMT concept provides a powerful framework to develop integrated virtual, constructive, and real team-training platforms for these applications.

DMT is still very much the state-of-the-art. It is expected to become the state-of-practice in the next millennium. Currently, distributed networks linking several aircraft simulators at each DMT node have been developed and implemented in the U.S. Air Force. They will be deployed, tested, and eventually inducted into their larger training systems. The current DMT trainer web is a secure intranet hosting actual aircraft, and virtual and constructive aircraft simulations and other logistics support. Extensive research and development on DMT systems is an ongoing, high-priority initiative within the U.S. Air Force.

While DMT is a promising technological revolution in the training world, there are also several challenges ahead. Some of the critical questions remaining are: How and when DMT should be used as part of a formal training program involving a multitude of team skills and equipment? What are the technological design options and how should DMT systems be configured? What are the current technological and operational limitations of the DMT technologies, and how can they be overcome? How should DMT systems be developed and implemented in any team training application?

These questions lead to an analysis of the potentials and challenges in DMT from three perspectives: behavioral, technological, and system implementation (see the accompanying table).

In this section, we try to provide some answers to these specific questions. Carroll presents a vision for the emerging DMT landscape and Bell addresses the behavioral questions. Dahmann et al. present an architectural standard for DMT that will soon become an IEEE and NATO standard. Peppler and Stephens address the challenges and emerging solutions in visual imagery in virtual platforms, and Crane presents an analysis of a real-world DMT implementation, practical experience with DMT, and performance assessments from controlled team training studies.

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R. Ramesh ( is an associate professor of Management Science and Systems at the School of Management, SUNY at Buffalo, NY.

Dee H. Andrews ( is the technical advisor of the Warfighter Training Research Division, Air Force Research Laboratory, Mesa, AZ.

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T1Table 1. Critical DMT research questions.

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©1999 ACM  0002-0782/99/0800  $5.00

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 1999 ACM, Inc.


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