Support: Cool 3-D Maps for Combat Planning


September 25, 2005: American troops have long used 3-D models of battle areas, especially when there is time (days or weeks) to prepare. The models were made by hand, from aerial photos, and whatever other intel was available. It was a time consuming process, but paid off by giving the troops (soldiers, fighter-bomber pilots, commandoes, or warships providing gunnery support) a better appreciation of the lay of the land. But in the last decade, military operations have been planned and carried out in shorter and shorter time frames. It's been difficult to build accurate 3-D models, to assist the troops in their planning, because of this.

In the late 1990s, 3-D mapping software, that could rapidly take aerial photo data, and produce striking looking 3-D like images on a computer monitor, became availability. While this was useful, it wasn't the same as a real 3-D model that you could touch and feel. But now the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has come up with a solution. They took another new tool from the 1990s, machines that can create 3-D models from CAD (computer aided design) files, and combined it with digital mapping technology. The 3-D model machines were originally developed to produce prototype parts for engineers, to help them in perfecting their designs. The Corps of Engineers adapted the software used in the 3-D model machines so that they could create the 3-D terrain models. The machine can also print, using ink-jet technology, on the plastic, to provide a suitably colored, 20x24 inch terrain model. It takes about two hours for a Z810 3D Printer to produce one such map. Each of these printers weighs 1300 pounds, and is eight feet long, four feet wide and six feet high. Small enough to be flown to a place like Iraq or Afghanistan, and be used to produce 3-D models for critical operations. The Special Forces likes to use these "instant" 3-D maps for planning observation patrols through desolate, and mountainous, parts of Afghanistan.

For combat troops, the PC based 3-D model systems are still useful, because now the troops can drive around inside these 3-D models. This is an excellent way to rehearse raids and urban combat operations. But there's something about a 3-D model you can touch and feel…




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