How often do the stars line up this auspiciously for Tulsa?
Congress has identified a certain industry as a national critical technology. The federal government is already spending hundreds of millions a year on this industry, with plans to spend much, much more. A pending bill in Congress would fund creation and expansion of college degree programs in this industry.
Although the industry isn't well known locally, the Tulsa metro area already has a critical mass of companies and skilled employees working in this industry and winning international recognition for technological innovation.
This industry involves cutting-edge computer technology--not boring, under-the-hood stuff--technology that engages sight, sound, and motion with spectacular realism.
We're talking about modeling and simulation, and, with a little bit of initiative on the part of local leaders, Tulsa is well-positioned to see dramatic growth in an industry that is already well established and thriving locally, providing hundreds of high-tech engineering and skilled manufacturing jobs.
Modeling and simulation involves creating a computerized representation of the real world (that's the modeling part) for the purpose of testing real-world scenarios (that's the simulation part).
With a simulation you can train someone to handle a hazardous situation, but without putting anyone in harm's way. With simulation you can test preparedness for emergency conditions that, God willing, will never occur in real life. You can learn lessons that would be too dangerous and too expensive to learn any other way.
If you've ever played Microsoft Flight Simulator, you've had a taste of what simulation can do. The PC game lets you fly over a variety of cities, experiencing a range of wind and weather conditions. You can fly a Lear 45 luxury jet, a Piper Cub, a Bell 206B helicopter, or a Boeing 747 and experience the different handling characteristics of each aircraft.
Flight simulation on a much grander scale is used to train pilots for military and civil aircraft. Instead of a keyboard and a computer screen, student pilots sit in a perfect replica of the cockpit. Out the window is a high-resolution visual scene projected onto a wraparound screen.
The cockpit sits atop a platform supported by six extensible legs which allow the cockpit to rear back, shudder, and bounce in response to the movement of the simulated aircraft. High-fidelity sound systems reproduce engine and wind noises and radio communications.
Sitting behind the copilot, an instructor uses a touchscreen to subject the student pilot to a variety of challenging conditions--a hydraulic system malfunction, jammed landing gear, an engine fire, sudden windshear. Rather than just reading about emergency procedures in a book or experiencing them for the first time in real life, the simulator-trained pilot has the correct responses ingrained in his reflexes, and those reflexes are tested in an immersive environment of white-knuckled, sweaty-palmed, heart-racing realism.
There's more to simulation than pilot training. Modeling and simulation are used in petroleum geology, civil engineering, and transportation and urban planning, and it's becoming increasingly important for homeland security. Computer models of the nation's food supply system, for example, can be tested against a variety of attacks and accidents to see if adequate safeguards are in place to protect American consumers.
In 2007, a homeland security exercise called Noble Reserve was conducted using modeling and simulation.
It involved 140 personnel and cost $2 million to develop over five months. A comparable live exercise in 2002 cost $250 million and involved 14,000 personnel over five years. With simulation, joint exercises can happen more frequently and more economically.
For nearly seven decades, Tulsa has been a center for the flight simulation industry, starting in 1939 with a company called Technical Training Aids, Inc., renamed Burtek after acquisition in 1955 by Cincinnati-based Burton-Rodgers.
Burtek's presence spawned other locally-owned companies in the training and simulation industry, which attracted the interest of international firms.
Today, metro Tulsa's simulation industry is headlined by FlightSafety Simulation Systems, with nearly 800 employees locally. The Broken Arrow facility designs, programs, and manufactures high-fidelity flight simulators and other flight training devices for use in FlightSafety's 43 learning centers around the world. The plant has produced simulators for everything from a twin-engine Beech Bonanza to a Boeing 777. It also builds training devices for aircraft maintenance technicians and flight simulators for military aircraft.
In September, FlightSafety was recognized by the National Training and Simulation Association for its technical achievement in the development of the first successful heavy, all-electromechanical motion system for flight simulators.
The system, developed here under the leadership of control systems expert Dr. Nidal Sammur, who earned his master's at TU and his doctorate at OSU, eliminates the need for noisy, power-thirsty, high-maintenance hydraulics to provide the sensations of flight to the simulator cockpit. The new technology was a key factor in FlightSafety's successful bid to build 34 helicopter simulators for the U. S. Army's Flight School XXI program.
FlightSafety isn't the only area company building simulators and flight training devices.
Safety Training Systems, incorporated in 1979, has a workforce of about 100 and 100,000 sq. ft. of factory space with plans to expand both by 20 to 30% this year. The company builds major hardware components for military flight simulators. For commercial airlines, STS builds cabin simulators, used by airlines to train flight attendants to efficiently evacuate an aircraft amidst the smoke, darkness, and confusion of an emergency.
CymSTAR is a fast-growing small business, founded in 2003, that modifies existing military aircraft simulators and maintenance training devices to meet new training needs.
Earlier this year, CymSTAR landed an $8 million contract for modifications to simulators for the U. S. Air Force's KC-10 aerial refueling tanker. CymSTAR also builds a device called the Badger, used to accustom Marines to the sounds of live fire on the battlefield.
These companies in turn buy components and services from a number of local suppliers, such as AMI Instruments, Aeroweld, Aviation Training Devices, Newton Design and Fabrication, Bennett Engineering, and Shen Te Enterprises, to name a few.
Oklahoma's four major military installations--Altus AFB, Tinker AFB in Midwest City, Vance AFB in Enid, and Fort Sill--make heavy use of simulators for training tanker and transport pilots, artillery, and AWACS crewmembers. Altus is the main "schoolhouse" for C-17 cargo plane crew and KC-135 tanker pilots and boom operators. Vance provides initial pilot training for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.
These businesses bring in tens of millions of dollars in new money into the Tulsa-area economy every year. Nevertheless, the simulation industry isn't well known to Tulsans, probably because these companies are selling to customers everywhere but here. The executives of these companies are focused on growing their own businesses and haven't been players in chamber of commerce politics.
Tulsa's simulation industry could be even bigger than it already is. There's plenty of work to be done. Rising fuel costs, a wave of pilot retirements in the airline industry, and the need to train pilots for military service overseas all mean more demand for simulators.
Networked simulation is the next big thing, allowing our armed forces to rehearse complete missions and to practice crucial battlefield coordination and communication.
At a recent industry convention in Orlando, an airman stood in a quarter-dome looking out over a projected image of an airfield in the Arizona desert, training for his role directing close air support from the ground. A simulated mortar attack on the airfield, perpetrated by computer-generated forces, was underway. Using his radio, the airman called in an air strike from two real F-15s flying over that Arizona airfield. As the real F-15s flew in to target the simulated mortar sites, the soldier could see images of the fighters flying into his simulated field of view.
Enabling this kind of training experience will involve a massive effort to build new training devices and modify existing simulators.
The biggest challenge is finding enough people who are capable of getting the job done. Local simulation companies are looking for mechanical, electrical, aerospace, avionics and computer software engineers, as well as technicians, welders, fabricators, and machinists.
Six years ago, U. S. Rep. Ric Keller (R.-Fla.) convened a summit of Florida simulation firms, which identified the need for education focused on preparing professionals for the industry. That led to the creation of a Modeling and Simulation Department at Orlando's University of Central Florida. (You know, the guys who beat TU last Saturday.)
The Congressional Modeling and Simulation Caucus actively promotes the industry on Capitol Hill. Earlier this year, the U. S. House of Representatives passed H. Res. 487, designating modeling and simulation as a National Critical Technology. H. R. 4165, now in the Education and Labor Committee, would authorize $40 million in the first year of a five-year program to fund the creation and expansion of modeling and simulation degree programs, matching every local dollar with three federal dollars.
In other hubs of the simulation industry--central Florida (Tampa, Orlando, and the Space Coast), the Tidewater region of Virginia, Huntsville, Ala., the DFW metroplex--modeling and simulation businesses have banded together with elected officials and educators to raise the industry's local profile and to address common concerns, particularly the need for more engineers.
The same sort of collaboration needs to happen here in Tulsa. We ought to be shouting from the rooftops about an industry that provides hundreds of high-quality jobs and has an enormous economic impact. OSU-Tulsa would be a natural home for a modeling and simulation program; the school's leadership should lay the groundwork to pursue any federal funding that materializes.
For both companies and individuals, there are plenty of fascinating technical challenges to solve and a lot of real money to be made in simulating reality.
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