The Tactical Assault Kit was already state-of-the-art when it was released ten years ago. The mobile software platform is used by 250,000 military and civilians across the world, to communicate and share environment information in real-time. Now in development is the latest TAK innovation, by defense contractor ARA, called the Virtual Tactical Assault Kit (VTAK). VTAK uses virtual reality (VR) to enable Special Operations forces and warfighters to collaborate and perform mission planning and rehearsal in full 3D space.
VTAK is developed by ARA’s Virtual Heroes Division, globally recognized serious games experts who have been creating 3D training, simulation, and virtual-world experiences for over 17 years. Said Randy Brown, ARA VP and Virtual Heroes Division manager, “It’s great to be part of the TAK development family. We’re thrilled to be able to add significant 3D immersion tools to TAK’s situational awareness capabilities.”
VTAK is the latest in a line of TAK products. The first iteration of TAK was the Android Tactical Assault Kit (ATAK), an open-standards software platform released in 2010 for Android mobile devices. The technology enables operators to share resources and navigate using GPS and accurate geospatial map data. Operators experience better situational awareness: mission planners can help Soldiers avoid environment hazards in combat zones. Soldiers can view the locations of other Soldiers in real time. This technology was an innovative shift from cumbersome radio-based communication, paper maps, and signal mirrors. ATAK was co-branded the Android Team Awareness Kit outside the Department of Defense, for users such as first responders, police, and emergency personnel. Other TAK versions followed, such as WinTAK for Windows, iTAK for Apple iPhone, and now VTAK.
VTAK began in early 2019, when the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Warfighter Support Office awarded ARA funding to bring virtual reality capabilities to the United States Special Operations Command TAK ecosystem. With VTAK, ARA is expanding TAK’s capabilities by reimagining its delivery mechanism. Rather than interacting with 2D interfaces, the operator dons a VR headset and experiences a full 3D synthetic terrain environment. The operator can walk around inside geographically accurate space, built from real-world dynamically updated terrain data, using VR controllers to make selections from an in-world, interactive menu. Said Brown, “Soldiers can truly visualize routes, determine bearing, and analyze lines of sight from a ‘God’s Eye’ view all the way down to ‘boots on the ground.’”
As a situational awareness tool, Soldiers in a tent can load the latest available 3D terrain maps of areas of interest to gain a boots-on-the-ground perspective and analyze aerial views for reconnaissance and location familiarization. They use VR controller tools to annotate terrain and buildings, measure distances, and place and rotate vehicles. Soldiers can share planned routes, go/no-go zones, ground markers and imagery, and other features with all other users in the TAK network, in real-time.
To bring VTAK to life, the ARA development team leveraged the rendering technology of the Unreal Engine 4 (UE4), a leading-edge 3D simulation and gaming platform. UE4 is known for its high-resolution graphics, scalability across multiple platforms, and advanced mobile features. VTAK runs UE4 on an easy to transport lightweight laptop.
For VR hardware, ARA developers continuously investigate, acquire, and integrate new, commercially available VR systems, to ensure functionality across a broad range of commercial off-the-shelf manufacturers and products. Current equipment supported includes the HTC VIVE, Oculus Rift, Rift S, Valve Index, HP Reverb, and Vive Cosmos. A non-VR mode of VTAK is also supported.
A key task for the ARA development team is to ensure this new VR solution interoperates with existing deployed TAK technologies and that it matches the existing TAK user interfaces, to ease the learning curve for Soldiers in the field. The team is ensuring connectivity to ATAK, WinTAK, ITAK, and WebTAK platforms through the TAK Server. Users of all platforms can send and receive text messages, Cursor on Targets, and data packages containing mission planning information to and from other TAK clients. Multiple agencies can communicate and collaborate with one another, regardless of the specific end-user TAK platform.
ARA VTAK developers are focusing on implementing the Virtual Tactical Operations Center (VTOC). This virtual command post will enable military leaders to make important decisions pre-deployment, en route, or during deployment, without needing to move and set up bulky TOC hardware. A laptop and VR headset will replace heavy monitors and computers and other equipment. The TOC experience will be fully customizable, allowing operators to create and configure as many virtual media surfaces as necessary inside the VTOC environment.
Developers are also implementing an extensible plugin SDK framework. At the heart of TAK is its open, extensible nature, so TAK developers are encouraged to create their own VTAK plugins. VTAK, like other TAK products, is meant to evolve as user needs evolve. Said Peter Scott, Development Lead for the C5ISR Tactical Integration Cell, “We see VTAK as the natural evolution of situational awareness for mission planning and execution. We want to provide operators with the ability to fully immerse themselves in a target environment prior to conducting an operation at that location. VTAK is enabling this goal. During a recent training event at a MOUT site, operators unfamiliar with the location were given the opportunity to explore the site in VTAK prior to conducting training. After those individuals returned from the target, they described the location as being ‘like they had been there before.’ This is the level of immersion we are looking for.”
This article was originally published on March 31, 2021