Canadian Defence Review
Title: Bluedrop Performance Learning: revolutionizing defence training
Subtitle: This innovative player is at the forefront in the development of defence related eLearning courseware, cloud-based platforms and simulation solutions.
When defence industry stakeholders talk trade, discussion often revolves around things that go “boom;” tanks, planes, ships, ordinance and the like. The more sophisticated and politically correct among us talk more about C2 systems, ISR, drones and other innovative information technologies.
But Allen Dillon may be on an ever higher plane. “When people think defence I want them to think brains,” says Dillon, vice-president (business development, aerospace and defence) at Bluedrop Performance Learning. “Many of the systems in today’s armed forces are so complex that unless users are properly trained to maintain and operate them they won’t be able to fully leverage their capabilities. In worst case scenarios those systems could even be counter-productive. That’s why education and training need to be at the forefront of all defence preparedness strategies.”
Dillon should know. In the three years since Bluedrop moved into the defence market the company has become recognized as a key provider of value-added solutions that help get men in uniform to peak performance levels and keep them there. “We supply high fidelity simulation and training at a fraction of industry prices,” says Dillon. “We have a number of competitive advantages, including a highly-skilled and innovative workforce, ISO certification, two decades of experience and an ability to tailor custom offerings that meet the specialized needs of international governments, top-tier OEMs and contractors.”
A new training center and export contract
There are few more tangible signs of the company’s ambition than the September opening of the Bluedrop Training and Simulation Center, which officials claim will “host and develop some of the world’s most advanced training and simulation technologies,” that will address civilian and defence players’ operational and maintenance requirements.
Based in the Bayer’s Lake Industrial Park, in Halifax, the center will initially employ 20 technical staff (Bluedrop as a whole employs 120 people), but these numbers are expected to grow rapidly during coming years, as new projects come onstream. The new facility will house five Bluedrop demonstrator units that prospective users can test, or which can be made available for training purposes. These include the Complete Aircrew Training System (CATS), the Tactical Airlift Crew Trainer (TACT), the Mounted Arms Simulator (MArS), the MK1 Sniper/FO Simulator, and the Virtual Marshalling Simulator.
The facility got off to a quick start shortly after it was announced, when the Royal Australian Air Force agreed to acquire $890,000 worth of Bluedrop’s virtual reality-based simulation tools, including a TACT trainer, to support its existing Hercules C-130J Loadmaster Training Program. The new trainer will simulate procedural training scenarios in both day and night, that focus on threat detection (such as surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles) and reaction times, as well as secondary scenarios such as ramp and cabin in-flight checks, aircraft emergencies, cargo security, paratrooper dispatching and so on.
An eLearning pioneer moves into defence
Bluedrop is a Canadian success story, that was founded by four young engineering students, including its current CEO Emad Rizkalla, as an IT consultancy. According to Dillon, the company became an early pioneer in the advancement of eLearning solutions into the defence sector after it began to get sub-contract assignments from CAE, where Dillon, a former Canadian Armed Forces armoured unit officer (and who remains an honorary colonel of a local militia regiment) once worked.
The company’s first mandate, to provide an Aircrew Training Program for the CC-130J, required it to set up a 47 person office near CFB Gagetown, where much of the training is taking place, and where the company maintains an additional dozen or so full-time staff. Today Bluedrop fills a range of mandates from providing e-courses that assist in training pilots for Canada’s new Chinook and other helicopters, to supplying courseware to train maintenance staff on the Hercules transports.
Dillon quickly recognized the implications of perfecting technology to improve the learning process. “Keeping employees up to date is a key competitive advantage in the corporate world, but in the armed forces it can be a matter of life of death,” says Dillon. “Sun Tzu once said that all battles are won or lost before they are even fought. What he meant was that military conflict is a real-time and ongoing game, and that defence forces’ advances and declines often occur in peacetime. When conflict erupts it is too late to start training. You have to fine tune your methodology on an ongoing basis.”
While most of the capabilities that Bluedrop supplies were developed internally, the company is not shy about partnering with other players to expand its offerings. These include an alliance with Australian based Virtual Simulation Systems (VSS) which gives Bluedrop the right to market the latter’s MK1 Sniper/ FO simulator, currently in use with the Australian forces. Bluedrop took the product, make adaptations and improvements to the virtual scenarios, and recently released the updated MK2 version, which is currently being looked at by a number of potential clients.
“Training pervades all aspects of today’s armed forces,” continued Dillon. “The modern soldier is in the classroom on a regular basis from the day he enters basic training until he quits the service. In later stages of their careers, senior personnel often become instructors themselves. As a result, a good part of our work consists of listening to what they have to say, taking that information and using it to make or refine constant product upgrades.”
The evolution of eLearning
Carl Daniels, Bluedrop’s vice-president (innovation and new products) agrees. Daniels, a seasoned simulations systems programmer, joined Bluedrop just over a year ago after re-connecting with Dillon, who he had worked with for many years at another defence contractor. Part of the attraction was Dillon’s vision for the company. “He told me that greater computing power and the advent of mobile systems and cloud computing were significantly expanding eLearning opportunities in the defence sector and lowering their implementation costs,” said Daniels. “He had in mind a whole range of new products that he wanted to introduce and I wanted to be part of it.”
Dillon’s recognition of the opportunities presented by the changing eLearning landscape, such as the potential to incorporate gaming technology into the classroom, was bang on. A widely recognized dictum in Silicon Valley, Moore’s Law, which dictates that computer processing power will double every 18 months or so, has proven correct for several decades now, and looks to endure for several more cycles. These faster processing speeds, coupled with increased graphics capabilities, throughput power, as well as the advent of head-mounted displays and virtual reality attachments that can fully immerse users in a new world, have exponentially increased the effectiveness potential of simulation and eLearning options.
At the same time, the advent of mobile technology and mobile devices has also increased the capabilities of those simulations and options. “These days it is quite conceivable that an aircraft technician can use training tools as jobs aids, or as reminders when doing tasks such as engine or maintenance work,” says Daniels. “All he needs to do is to download the courseware or simulation onto his iPad or other device and he is ready to go.”
Daniels notes that the advent of new commercial, off-the-shelf tools, such as Unity 3D, Crytek’s CryEngine and Virtual Battle Space (VBS2) have significantly empowered creators to efficiently and effectively develop new systems and solutions.
New capabilities, new threats
That said, these changing capabilities are accompanied by threats as well. For one, there is always the possibility that competitor nations, or non-state actors will leverage those technologies better and faster. More likely though, is the possible appearance of an expectations gap caused by new recruits’ increasing familiarity with technology in their personal lives and in schoolrooms, an area in which the Department of National Defence and Public Works and Government Services Canada are clearly lagging.
“Today’s recruits are far more sophisticated technologically than those a generation ago,” says Daniels. “You can no longer wow them by putting up a PowerPoint presentation on the board with a few cool features. Today’s soldiers expect a more modern classroom, such as those they became accustomed to growing up.”
That said, Daniels continues to have high hopes. “Canada’s procurement process has well-known faults which senior officials have been struggling to address for some time,” note Dillon. “So I really feel for the front line educators and trainers who recognize the capabilities of new eTechnologies, but simply can’t get procurements through the system fast enough.”
In fact Canada’s defence procurement system is so slow, that in the time it takes for officials to issue a Request for Information, Request for Proposal and other paperwork, and then to test, and purchase new training and learning technology, suppliers often have time to introduce completely upgraded versions or releases.
In the final analysis as in every other field, in defence: money talks. And these days cash strapped defence forces are forced to look everywhere they can to stretch their procurement and operations dollars, a trend that makes increased adoption of eLearning and simulations and solutions an inevitability. “Analysts have long recognized the vast savings that can be achieved by offering (for example) pilot training on simulators as opposed to on the craft themselves, when possible,” says Dillon. “However these days, the simulators themselves are so expensive, running in the millions of dollars, that substantial additional efficiencies can be achieved by “pushing down” more routine training functions (such as engine start-ups, shut-downs etc…) to smaller, low-fidelity devices.”
An Industrial and Regional Benefits partner…
A final, though not insubstantial factor that Bluedrop Performance Learning brings to the table is its ability to team up with companies looking to meet their industrial and regional benefits obligations to the Canadian government. “We have several things going for us that make us an ideal partner,” says Dillon. “For one, because we are a knowledge-based business, in which much of the research and development work that we do has significant export potential, we generate IRB multiples that are worth up to five times the value of the mandates subcontracted to us. Our large, pan-Canadian footprint and Atlantic Canada head office, as well as out ability to help leverage small business content obligations and our membership in the Center of Excellence for Advanced Learning Technologies (CEALT) with the National Research Council are also key value-adds.”
However unlike some other Canadian IRB subcontractors, Dillon refuses to use the IRB capability as a crutch, when pushing for work in programs such as the new Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue and the Land Vehicle Crew Training System initiatives. “Those benefits are all fine and dandy, but to work with our chosen partners, we have to deliver first rate results. That in turn implies providing solutions people need and getting price points right.”
“In our industry you have to be best in breed to ever hope to even think about getting any work,” says Dillon. “That is our goal on each product and mandate.”
Sidebar #1: At a glance
Name: Bluedrop Performance Learning
Key contacts: Allen Dillon, executive vice-president (business development, aerospace and defence)
Products: Advanced learning solutions
CDR Top 50 ranking: 18th (2012), 44th (2011)
Locations: St. Johns NL, Fredericton NB, Halifax NS, Ottawa ON, Vancouver BC
Number of employees: 120
Stock ticker symbol: BPL (Toronto Venture Exchange).
- Complete Aircrew Training System (CATS)
- Tactical Airlift Crew Trainer (TACT)
- Mounted Arms Simulator (MArS)
- MK1 Sniper/FO Simulator
- Virtual Marshalling Simulator
Please highlight this quote in a sidebar box:
“Many of today’s defence systems are so complex, that unless users are properly trained, they won’t be able to fully leverage them.”
Allen Dillon, vice-president (business development, aerospace and defence)
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Peter Diekmeyer Communications Inc.