Daily Iowan: Professor Virtually Stars

By Michael Kadrie
Daily Iowan
 

Santos, decked out in the latest Marine gear, is busily repeatedly climbing a ladder as researchers examine real-time information on the specific stresses his body is enduring, carefully noting when levels of force reach unacceptable levels.

Researchers do not need to worry about him injuring himself though, because Santos is entirely virtual. 

He is the centerpiece of an 11-year effort to create a realistic, biomechanically accurate model at the University of Iowa Center for Computer Aided Design. 

The current version of the UI Virtual Soldier Program was presented at a NATO conference in Prague, Czech Republic, from Oct. 15 to 17.

“We want to replicate a human being, so you can ask them to do things we can’t do because we don’t have the equipment … [or it’s] dangerous,” said Karim Abdel-Malek, director of the program, and the center.

Malek was invited to attend the conferences as a member of the U.S. delegation by the U.S. Marines.  The conferences primarily exhibited new military technologies for purchase to representatives of NATO member nations.

His most important presentation was on the newly developed “GruntSim,” an expansion of the existing Virtual Soldier Program.

It was created with an $8.5 million grant from the U.S. Marines by a 45-person team over five years.
Santos was created 11 years ago for the U.S. Army.

The program offers a streamlined user interface that allows customization of both the physical stature of “Santos,” or his female counterpart “Sophia,” and the equipment they are carrying.

“Instead of bringing hundreds of Marines in, they try the equipment virtually,” Abdel-Malek said.

The program offers accurate representations of the mass and weight of both current equipment and some equipment that is still in development.

Abdel-Malek said the UI program is probably the biggest of its kind currently.  There are other notable groups, however, working at Stanford and in Japan.

He said the response from the NATO conferences has been overwhelmingly positive.  Already, the UI has heard from eight different nations about possibly licensing the technology for their use.

Abdel-Malek is unsure how the licensing process will work, but said the university has a process in place to handle the financial end of it.

Money will likely be dispersed across the university based on need, with a small percentage going to the licensing company and inventor.

At the moment, three members of his staff are training a group of 15 people at the U.S. Marine base at Quantico, Virginia, in the programs use.  He also recently presented the technology to Apple at its request.

Despite being the director of the entire UI Center for Computer-Aided Design, Abdel-Malek takes a special interest in the Virtual Soldier program.  The program, which he described as “his baby,” is based on his personal research.

“I went to a conference that had human simulation. My math applied there much more for some reason … about a year later I got a few million dollars from the Army,” he said.

To date, “Santos” has helped bring in $52 million in research funding to the UI.

Abdel-Malek is largely responsible for the reoccurring fundraising process he describes as “painful.”

“You have to find the right group that’s interested and has the need,” he said.

A healthy funding model has been key in maintaining the staff of 45 people, who have played a large part in making the program successful.

The staff is made up of 12 scientists, six professors and a mix of graduate and undergraduate students.

“Modeling the human body is a complex process and involves many different disciplines,” said assistant program director Professor Jasbir Arora.

UI senior Caley Medinger, an undergraduate research assistant for the Virtual Soldier program, is amazed by the project.

Medinger said she works on a single major task, while “bouncing around” and testing several different aspects of the program’s underlying code.  She said Abdel-Malek, and all the program staff are a joy to work with.

“It’s almost hard to wrap my head around all of what Virtual Soldier can do,” she said.