The Afghani village was unusually quiet for a Tuesday morning.
Carts sat unattended and wooden doors closed as the morning sun spread its rays over the dusty roads. One of the few vendors undeterred by the brisk morning was the bicycle repairman. Holding firmly to the pedal, he spun the crank, keeping a watchful eye on the rear tire as it repeatedly spun around. The 30-something-year-old man did not look up when the U.S. Marines said hello. He simply nodded his head and went about his business. As the Marines moved through the village, a woman sitting alone caught their attention. In an area where fruit vendors normally sell apples and other fruit, she sat in front of an empty cart, her hands hidden below the decrepit wood, out of sight. The Marines approached cautiously, focused intently. As the first two got within 15 feet of her, she slid her right arm out from the table and tossed something in their direction. The Marines dropped as the robot quickly slid back.
INFANTRY IMMERSION TRAINER
This mock village is part of the Infantry Immersion Trainer (IIT) located at Camp Pendleton in Southern California. IIT started as a prototype training facility and was the Marine Corps’ first service-built and service-run hyper-realistic trainer. The IIT has two purposes. Its primary purpose is to provide a ground-based combat simulator akin to a flight simulator, so that a “Marine’s first firefight is no worse than his or her last simulation.”
The nature of combat forces rapid operational decision-making in a highly stressful environment. By continually exposing Marines to the stresses of combat in a variable and rapidly repeatable environment, the IIT hardens Marines to the physical and emotional effects of stress and builds individual confidence. Through stressor inoculation and confidence building, Marines realize they can function effectively in a stressful environment and, most importantly, the Marines increase the speed at which they observe, orient, decide and act upon stressors.
The term, “immersion,” refers to the total sensory stimulation experienced by trainees at the IIT. For instance, the olfactory sense is stimulated by scent generators that are spread throughout the IIT. Scents range from curry to gangrene. There are three purposes for total sensory stimulation. First, stimulation of the senses activates more brain centers, which promotes the concept of presence or temporary suspension of reality in favor of the belief that an individual is in another place— a third-world country in the case of the IIT. Second, when more brain centers are stimulated, the likelihood of internalizing the experience in order to synthesize the information at a later time increases.
Third, by adding the novelty of sights, sounds, smells and even taste, the trainee’s interests are maintained. The immersive experience is achieved by visual stimulation via ethnic role-players and atmospheric set dressing. The ethnic role-players serve as key figures, interpreters, security forces, opposition forces or townspeople. The atmospheric set dressing includes iconography and décor modeled off photos and accounts of what is seen in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, the Philippines and Somalia.
But it does not stop there.
Audio effects are introduced via the SPECS sound system. A larger variety of sounds can be layered, timed and mixed in order to replicate the noise of an urban center, wildlife or aircraft. Battlefield effects are also introduced to provide the traumatic experiences of IED blasts, RPT strikes, vehicle-borne IED attacks, indirect fire attacks and AK-47 fire. All these elements are particularly important for the 3rd Assault Amphibious Battalion.
“ … the olfactory sense is stimulated by scent generators that are spread throughout the IIT. Scents range from curry to gangrene.”
Sgt. Matthew Suders, operations chief for Alpha Company, 3rd Assault Amphibious Battalion, said his battalion does not typically do infantry, because its key role is operating amphibious assault vehicles.
“We have the ability to come off the vehicles and turn into infantrymen,” he said. “[Thus], we need those skills so we can put them in our ‘toolbox.’ It makes the Marines better trained.” Part of the training is determining which villagers and situations present potential risks. “We give them refined skills on more than marksmanship,” said Suder. Those skills include looking for wires in the ground that could be for an IED and possible insurgents in a marketplace. When looking for insurgents, they look at the finer details, he said. “They, for example, might look for things such as different shapes and protruding parts that come out of their outfits,” he said. “These people are a little bit different from everyone else. With their heightened senses, they might notice that the uniform does not go straight down; instead, there might be a square portion on the hip area. In America, if one has a CCW, the weapon is concealed; it’s not a bulky-looking brick that comes out of one’s pocket. In these foreign countries, they do not have that process going on.”
At the same time, Marines can’t walk in with the mindset that everyone is a bad guy, he said, but caution is critical. “Plus, one can get injured a lot easier in the U.S. than in a foreign country, because one’s senses are heightened and always on the alert in a foreign country,” he noted. To develop all these skills, the Marines take classes, undertake practical application and shoot at the targets while real-life role-players shoot back … and some of the role-players are robots.
The IIT also serves as a testbed to either conduct testing of experimental systems or facilitate the testing of experimental systems. The robots, or animatronic figures, were introduced in 2010. Four, first-generation animatronic figures remain in use, adding to the village population and aiding in setting the visual baseline of normal daily activity. There are 11 in total, and these figures are being designed with multiple ethnic skins, a large array of facial expressions and the ability to take hostile actions. They are also able to sense shot impact and fall when shot in the head or chest.
Robert Thielen, who oversees the IIT program, explained that the robots have voice chips, so they can have conversations with the Marines. In addition, they are on tracks.
“The robots, which range in price from $85,000 to $250,000, are capable of speaking three different languages …”
“If shots are fired, they pull back on track and hide like everyone else so they do not become an anomaly,” Thielen said. The robots, which range in price from $85,000 to $250,000, are capable of speaking three different languages. And, according to Thielen, some of them are hostile: Two are able to pull a pistol, one can throw a grenade, and one has a plunger for an IED. Using feedback from the Marines, the robots will continually develop.
“We will develop new features so the robots get more realistic,” he said. “Plus, we will figure out how to use them in our scenarios and in what capacities they can be used.”
At end of year of the 18-month program, the robots will be assessed to see how they can be improved. After all, they have to keep up with a 21st-century battlefield.
At the facility, cameras and sensors are used to record the training. The footage is studied, so the Marines can refine their skills and correct mistakes.
In 2010, construction began on the outdoor portion of the IIT.
In November of that year, the outdoor portion of the IIT opened for training. With the addition of approximately 126,000 square feet, 67 buildings and 235 new rooms, the throughput of the IIT tripled.
The process to create a robot starts with a silicone mold of an actual person. The mold is then painted by hand, and any imperfections, such as pockmarks and moles, are added. After testing robots’ durability against a 9mm, officials realized they had to make the skin harder and thicker so the robots could withstand a lot of shots.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the April 2016 print issue of World of Firepower Magazine.