Orlando’s modeling, simulation and training cluster is a global model of economic might and sustained growth
During his 34-year military career, Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Thomas L. Baptiste was a real-life “top gun.”
He started out as an Air Force Navigator/Weapons Systems Officer before getting handpicked to become part of the initial cadre of Instructor Pilots for the new F-16, the latest and greatest at the time in the early 1980s. He ended his service as the Deputy Chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, the highest military authority in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In that role, Baptiste also served as the second most senior military advisor to the NATO Secretary General.
So in 2007, when he retired, Baptiste easily could have rode—or rather jetted—into the sunset. Instead, after three years of dabbling as a consultant he landed at the National Center for Simulation in Orlando as president and executive director.
There, he pilots by encouraging collaboration and celebrating others’ victories.
“I’m a cheerleader,” he readily concedes.
“That’s kind of easy to do because this is a great news story, and it’s something that supports the warfighter, which, of course, I’ve got a continual burning in my heart for anybody who serves in the military.”
The National Center for Simulation (NCS) is a not-for-profit trade association with 216 government, academic and industry members operating as an open consortium. The goal is to be the internationally recognized leader in supporting and expanding the modeling and simulation community by promoting technology expansion, enhanced education and workforce development.
While Baptiste arrived in Orlando upon retirement to spend time with his daughter and grandchildren, largely unaware of the region’s burgeoning military simulations and training , it didn’t take him long to find out. As a young officer, he remembers simulation training as being “pretty crude and not very good.” By contrast, in Orlando he found that simulation was “absolutely critical to the warfighter in America.” Since then, that indispensability has only magnified, he says—not only to the military but for the entire regional economy.
Orlando’s MS&T cluster
The sheer numbers: The U.S. military organizations in Orlando (Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force) are at the core of a simulation and training industry that contributes roughly $5 billion to Florida’s gross state product. Nearly 30,000 high-tech jobs, with salaries averaging $70,000 per year, directly support the industry. When combined with indirect and induced jobs, the industry employs more than 60,000 people. In all, 100-plus companies are active in what’s called the Metro Orlando MS&T (modeling, simulation and training) industry.
The growth hasn’t happened by accident. Aside from the statistics, there is uncommon synergy among multiple components.
Orlando is home to the Naval Air Warfare Center, Training Systems Division (NAWC-TSD); U.S. Army Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation (PEO STRI); U.S. Army Research Development and Engineering Command Simulation and Training Technology Center; Air Force Agency for Modeling and Simulation; U.S. Marine Corps Program Manager for Training Systems; the Army Research Institute Human Research and Engineering Directorate; and the Coast Guard Liaison Office. For starters.
Each is located adjacent to the other at the 1,027-acre Central Florida Research Park, recognized among the world’s top 10 research parks, housing more than 100 high-tech companies. Along with the military, many have joined together to form Team Orlando, a partnership comprising military services, industry and academia that works to leverage resources. Additionally, the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Simulation and Training is located at the park, serving as one of the nation’s leading research centers for simulation, training, modeling, virtual, augmented and mixed reality research for both defense and commercial applications. Nearby, UCF has the largest program in the U.S. dedicated to MS&T, awarding both master’s and doctoral degrees in that arena.
Drive down campus-like Central Florida Research Park, which was developed in the 1970s, and you see a slew of small companies attracted like magnets to the surrounding forces, literally ranging from A (Acudyn) to T (The Safety Doctor). Moreover, giants like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, General Dynamics and Rockwell Collins are prominent locally, too. Broader, the Florida High Tech Corridor contains the highest concentration of simulation and training related activities in the nation.
Historical growth of Orlando’s MS&T sector
For the industry, the growth curve has lasted about six decades. The region’s initial foray into simulation dates back to 1943, when one of the earliest military flight simulators was developed at NAS Banana River, now Patrick Air Force Base in Brevard County. That effectively tied the future Space Coast to Orlando. The cluster in Orlando firmly developed with the relocation of NAWC-TSD and PEO STRI from Long Island in 1965. Fifteen years earlier, paving that way, the Secretaries of the U.S. Army and Navy had agreed to collaborate on training and training devices.
As the needs of U.S. military training became more complex, Metro Orlando kept pace and grew in prominence. By using simulation, the military found training better and less expensive than in the past, while also being environmentally sound. The 1980s brought the invention of laser weapons training, providing soldiers with immediate feedback when firing their weapons during training and more accurate scoring. The 1990s delivered large-scale operations with tanks, planes and large- scale military exercises and the use of personal computers and video games as new ways to train.
In 1985, the state of Florida issued a resolution recognizing and endorsing a Center of Excellence for MS&T in Metro Orlando. In 2007, Congress declared modeling and simulation a “critical technology.”
“We’re not just known nationally; we’re known internationally,” affirms Waymon Armstrong, president of Engineering & Computer Simulations (ECS), an Orlando company that specializes in the military simulation experience.
“When you look at Central Florida, we’re thankful for how we’re known for tourism and the attractions. But to a lot of people, when you look at dealing with life-or-death issues, as far as training for our Armed Forces and our first responders, they think of what we do in modeling and simulation first.”
Orlando’s BRAC fighting plans
Yet, Armstrong spends at least some of his time these days huddling with Baptiste and other local officials in another sort of battleground: protecting their turf. In the midst of robust growth and Central Florida’s continuing economic recovery, there is talk of Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC) closures, and Metro Orlando’s MS&T cluster just might be in the crosshairs. The 2012 President’s Budget calls for two rounds of Base Realignment and Closure. Although nothing is imminent, officials aren’t waiting around. And collaboration, again, is playing a chief role.
Last spring, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs formed the MS&T Blue Ribbon Commission to work in partnership with the Metro Orlando Defense Task Force and others in helping to protect and grow Central Florida’s MS&T cluster. “MS&T represents precisely the type of science-driven discovery and high-tech economic activity that is so vital to our future,” says Jacobs. “In partnership with our local military commands and numerous defense contractors, the economic strength resulting from our MS&T assets will allow Florida and our region to remain at the forefront of national and global innovation economies.”
On December 2, the Jacobs’ commission and the Metro Orlando Defense Task Force are slated to meet and discuss next steps at the annual I/ITSEC meeting. The Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference is the largest gathering of its type in the world, annually held in Orlando.
Simulating beyond military applications
Among the focal points, says Armstrong, who is chair of that committee, are spinoffs encompassing the medical, gaming, education, aviation-aerospace, animation/theme park, emergency management and public safety sectors. “That’s where you see the future going aside what we’re doing for the DOD,” he says.
“With budget constraints, there’s no better return on investment than modeling and simulation through repurposing for the commercial industry.”
Indeed, the local spinoffs to other industries can be seen in a variety of ways. Digital media, entertainment and serious games connect the Orlando’s MS&T to the new Creative Village; and medical, and health care training has ties to Lake Nona Medical City. Through an IST digital puppetry program, new teachers can train in a virtual classroom and interact with role players portrayed in the simulation as students with challenges that the new teacher may face—before they enter a real classroom. Surgeons can practice before they make the first cut; emergency managers can practice response scenarios through simulation to ensure they are prepared for the real crisis.
Armstrong’s company is a case in point. With 16 years in military simulation, ECS is seeking to transform crisis response training in the oil and gas industry. The Crisis Response Simulation, or CRS, is a web-based, critical-thinking tool that immerses corporate senior executives in intense, realistic scenarios. The scenarios cover decisions that impact the preservation of life, the support of affected family members, oilrig stability, communication and social media, mitigation of legal risks and other factors.
“This industry brings not only technology, but learning and performance improvement all together in one,” notes Armstrong. For a military man like Baptiste, such assertions add fuel to his fire. Metro Orlando’s simulation and training activities clearly are noble, he believes: “It’s part of the training of our warfighters and making sure that more of them come home alive.”
Also, for a pilot who accumulated nearly 3,000 flight hours in fighter and trainer aircraft, the cause lifts his spirit.
“I don’t have any problem at all,” Baptiste concludes, “being the No. 1 head cheerleader for promoting something that’s good for Florida, good for Orlando, good for Orange County, good for Central Florida and good for the High Tech Corridor.”