Simulation is taking training to new levels, with cutting-edge innovations enabling new ways to implement workforce readiness.

In an oak-lined research park a stone’s throw from the University of Central Florida, a nondescript business front conceals the critical high-tech training happening inside.

Within, analysts sit in a darkened room, scanning two monitors at their desks and a wall of screens at the front. Dancing across these displays are graphs and tables indicating network activity and maps showing the locations and destinations of attacks and the severity of each.

A major cyberattack against a nuclear power plant’s industrial network is underway. Unknown digital assailants are targeting the machines that control crucial reactor components, and the analysts are busy launching countermeasures. An alert pops up on an operator’s screen, and she quickly responds to isolate an intrusion—but she’s too late. An attacker has gained access to the system responsible for regulating the reactor’s temperature.

“Ok, let’s stop there,” the instructor says. “Let’s rewind and see what we could have done better.”

No need to panic—this was just a test. Later this year, GLESEC, an Orlando cybersecurity firm, will have its advanced training facility fully operational. When it’s running, professionals who are responsible for keeping corporate and industrial networks safe will flock here from across the country and Latin America. They will learn about best cyber practices and rehearse their response to attacks in a simulation that doesn’t endanger any real networks.

“Our cyber range simulator is the analog of a real operations center that gives trainees a place to try things securely and safely,” says Sergio Heker, a cybersecurity expert and internet pioneer who is GLESEC’s CEO. “It improves skills, which is so important because there’s a global shortage of people with them. You don’t learn what we teach here in universities.”

An unparralleled MS&T footprint

GLESEC’s cyber range simulation is just one element of Orlando’s vast and mature virtual training technology ecosystem, which is traditionally called modeling, simulation and training (MS&T).

Immersive, high-tech MS&T systems use mixed or virtual reality, haptic devices to simulate touch and other innovations to train employees faster, cheaper and safer. They also let organizations streamline their training programs to teach employees new skills only when that person needs them.

These simulations are taking training to a whole new level in fields from aviation to healthcare. And Orlando is the acknowledged global leader in producing the tools that organizations need.

“We were in New Jersey and originally thinking about relocating to Miami until we visited Orlando,” Heker says. “We found lots of things here that made it particularly attractive—the biggest being the sheer size of the MS&T ecosystem here.”

Orlando’s outsized virtual training footprint comes primarily from the industry’s long history in the region. The military has been developing simulators here for nearly six decades to improve human performance. In that time, the area has become the simulation and modeling home for every branch of the armed services. 

“We found lots of things here that made it particularly attractive—the biggest being the sheer size of the MS&T ecosystem here.”

Sergio Heker, CEO of GLESEC

To better collaborate, these groups have banded together in a locally based organization called Team Orlando. A 1,000-acre campus that is the hub of this activity sits next door to the University of Central Florida. Among the many projects there, the Army is developing a virtual training ground called the Persistent Cyber Training Environment for its future classes of cyber warriors.

“Fundamentally, MS&T is a tool we invest in heavily to make our warfighters better prepared in their particular tradecraft,” says Capt. Tim Hill, the commanding officer of the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division headquartered in Orlando. “We’re now able to more quickly prepare them to do something they’ve never done before through these training systems. This is about improving human performance.”

The federal government’s local MS&T work amounts to $6 billion a year injected into Central Florida’s economy. But though the military holds a founding and dominant position here, the ecosystem that supports the industry is robust and rapidly expanding.

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Hill says the defense department used to push MS&T innovation forward on its own. But now the military is taking lessons from Orlando’s theme park and online gaming industries to move training into the future.

Ideas flow back and forth between the armed forces, local companies and academic researchers. In some simulation and modeling projects, the Air Force or UCF may develop a new technology that then finds use among commercial customers. In others, like the Navy’s recruit training modernization called Ready Relevant Learning, the federal government reaches out to local companies that have the expertise they need.

One of the cornerstones of that transformation is called Battle Stations 21, a simulation produced by a team that included the local experience design company IDEAS. In this capstone event for recruits, sailors board a full-sized mockup of a Navy ship in Great Lakes, Illinois. The ship virtually sets sail, and the trainees must confront a gauntlet of unexpected challenges like a fire and enemy attacks. When they make it through the immersive simulation, they graduate.

Hill, who is a veteran commander and has seen numerous deployments, was shocked by the accuracy of the high-tech model. “I have a good idea of what getting on a ship looks like, what it feels like and what it really sounds like,” he said. “The first time I visited Battle Stations 21, I look around and go, ‘Yeah, this is all about right.’ Orlando companies that work a lot with theme parks know how to pay attention to detail to get you to suspend your disbelief.”

Unlocking skills through the virtual world

Nearly 150 businesses of all sizes now animate the local MS&T scene. All are looking to make the military and the for-profit world their customers.

One of those firms is Mass Virtual, which creates next-generation virtual and augmented reality training systems. The company’s artists, designers and programmers make advanced simulations for training employees in fields from the military to construction and manufacturing. One of its premier products, a virtual reality trainer for Air Force maintainers called Virtual Hangar ™, is about to be deployed to bases around the world and could end up being used for commercial aviation.

Harnessing tools and approaches from the gaming industry, Virtual Hangar lets junior aircraft maintainers work on complex tasks without destroying equipment or injuring themselves. They can do things like replacing an F-16’s engine on a life-sized virtual representation of the aircraft.

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Kenneth Renfrow, 19th Maintenance Group maintenance qualifications training instructor, uses a virtual reality headset at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, Dec. 19, 2019. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Aaron Irvin. Source: Air Education and Command Command News Center.

Other local industries are also investing heavily in simulation-based training. In healthcare, AdventHealth’s Nicholson Center has developed a reputation as a world leader in using simulations to train surgeons and nurses in robot-assisted surgeries, laparoscopies and teamwork. And companies like AeroStar and SIMCOM use simulators to train commercial pilots how to fly aircraft from small turboprops up to Boeing 737s.

With a need for designers, software engineers and even psychologists to factor human behavior into the simulations, Orlando’s MS&T workforce hovers at around 20,000. Many employees, like those working at Mass Virtual and GLESEC, are armed with specialized knowledge from the military, UCF’s Institute for Modeling and Simulation or its Cyber Intelligence Lab, Rollins College’s program and others.

This is one of the main reasons Mass Virtual set down roots here.

“The talent pool is phenomenal,” says Mass Virtual CEO John Brooks. “There are so many university programs feeding a rich technical ecosystem. If you need talent and expertise, Orlando is where it’s at, for sure.”

Meanwhile, incubators, networking groups and community lectures held at the locally based trade group called the National Center for Simulation feed new ideas coming from a range of industries. The local gaming industry may offer a better modeling engine to software engineers building new flight training systems, for instance.

“We’re just now scratching the surface of all the opportunities here,” says George Cheros, the National Center for Simulation’s CEO. “The amount of collaboration creates a working environment like none I’ve ever seen before.”