Robotica (1991) volume 10

Reports and surveys


It was inevitable that the development of Al techniques would be used in many practical simulations. The UK fire fighters now rely on a system which can simulate all the hazards of controlling a blazing building and which gives training for fire officers without resorting to burning down real buildings. The system software, which combines artificial intelligence techniques with interactive videos, provides a simulation through which fire officers can practise command and control skills that will ultimately enable them to save lives and property. With this new simulator intelligence and information from a wide range of sources can be fed to fire officers under training, whereas using a mock-up of buildings only limited experience of command and control skills can be given.

The development of the simulator is being undertaken by researchers in the School of Architecture at the UK's Portsmouth Polytechnic. The team of developers calls itself the Iccarus (Inteligent Command and Control Acquisition and Review Using Simulation) group, and grew out of the work undertaken for the Learning Technology Unit of the Training Agency. Starting some two years ago by producing an interactive video (IV) disc on fire safety it was asked by the West Midlands Fire service training officer to produce a TV disc especially for the training of fire officers. The interesting feature of this programme was the early involvement of an Al specialist. The simulation, the group say, is based on the research of the US Al scientists, Shanks, Abelson and Hewill. In their work they say that intelligent simulation can be carried out effectively if a number of 'actors' who are 'semi intelligent' are used in the model.

Adapting this to fire training means that the actors are the people, buildings and equipment. The semi-intelligent actors are produced by software constructs that work to a defined script, but are also aware of events and know how to respond.

In some simulations as many as 200 actors may be interacting at any one time. The Iccarus group claim that many IV simulations can be outsmarted because the parameters can be worked out and the problems solved more easily, whilst in their system the parameters can be altered, say by changing the layout of the building, opening or closing doors, or including hazards such potential explosions or the presence of inflammable gas cylinders etc.

The group say that their system requires at least the power of an Apple Macintosh Ilcxi which is equipped with a Transputer-based accelerator. Because this gives some parallel processing it can run in real-time. The software was written in Prolog, a language chosen because it gave the team a flexibility in writing the Iccarus procedures and useful access to good graphics. A Laserdisc player to provide motion video and stills, a compact disc player for the audio sould track, together with two monitors made up the rest of the system. Each device was used appropriately to provde the layout of the building, command and confirmation information, still pictures and motion video as needed. Any footage of fire situations could be included. One feature of the system is that during its run it keeps a record of all the user fire officer's commands plus the resources used and the times at which they were deployed. It also allows a replay so that an officer can see how he/she responded to a situation.

Iccarus has cost some £200,000 to date and a prototype simulator is under test at the UK Fire Services College. It is hoped to market the simulator for some £10,000. Although this shows how modern high technology can be used in training in this specific application there is little doubt that the techniques can be applied to numerous industrial and business applications. Interactive video techniques have yet to be fully explored and the additional use of tested AI procedures can produce some powerful and useful simulators.