Submarine design and training

HIT TeamWorking with British and foreign armed forces, the HIT team at the University of Birmingham are pioneering the use of virtual reality in the arena of submersibles and underwater exploration.

Projects related to search and rescue, underwater visibility, and submarine training are having huge impact on the safety and success rates of current operations.


Submarine rescue

This concept demonstrator study was conducted at the request of the MoD’s Submarine Escape, Rescue and Abandonment Systems Project Team.

The simulation was based on the LR5 manned submersible, which, at the time of the project was part of the UK Submarine Rescue Service and was designed to rendezvous with a disabled submarine, create a watertight seal between the hatch to the submarine’s escape tower, and then transfer survivors to the safety of a support ship on the surface.

In contrast to the Virtual Scylla Project, the LR5 simulation demanded greater attention to visual fidelity of the underwater environment as a result of the environment being viewed (in the main) by the virtual submersible pilot, as opposed to via a basic camera mounted onboard a remotely operated vehicle.

As well as a simulated view of a disabled Kilo Class Submarine through the submersible’s forward dome, the pilot’s virtual cockpit contained an additional two simulated CCTV displays, relaying real-time virtual views of the cameras mounted externally.

For the purposes of this early demonstrator, flying the virtual submersible and looking around the cockpit area were made possible by the use of controls provided on an XBox gamepad.


SubSafe is an experimental interactive 3D spatial awareness training tool, designed to investigate the replacement of legacy training media in use by Royal Navy submarine qualification (SMQ) instructors.

Navigating the decks and compartments in a “first-person” mouse-and-keyboard game style, SMQ trainees had access to all decks forward of the control room, comprising over 30 compartments and 500 different objects – including fire extinguishers, hose units, high-pressure air valves, and emergency breathing system masks.

A statistical analysis of knowledge transfer data, collated following a year of experimental trials with the RN’s Submarine School, revealed that use of SubSafe during classroom training significantly improved the final “walkthrough” examination scores of trainees onboard an actual submarine.

Interest in SubSafe has stimulated similar developments for the international submarine community, including virtual walkthroughs for the UK’s Astute Class, the Canadian Victoria Class and the Australian Collins Class. Digital SubSafe assets were also re-used to develop a 3D animation of the March 2007 HMS Tireless Self-Contained Oxygen Generator explosion incident for the Coroner’s Court of Inquiry.

The Human Factors principles and design processes adopted for SubSafe are now being exploited as part of the RN’s Successor submarine programmes.

SubSafe “Spin-Out” Projects

Since the completion of the SubSafe project, other future vessel and naval system developers have commissioned small concept demonstrations, from submarine abandonment and rescue to early deck layout concepts for future surface combatants, such as the RN’s Type 26.

Subsea situational awareness display

This project evaluated the capabilities of current gaming technologies to deliver a real-time, multi-source/multi-screen 3D visualisation capability for subsea situational awareness.

The interest from Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) related to the development of an intuitive visualisation tool that could be used by future Mine Countermeasures Vessel personnel to help foster a strong spatial awareness of the “arrangement” of the seabed and various artefacts – targets, debris, wrecks, mines and the like – and to plan the deployment of appropriate countermeasures assets.

A process to support the conversion of bathymetric survey datasets into a format suitable for real-time exploration using a modified games engine was developed and the converted data were used to demonstrate a multi-window interface format, depicting seabed topography and simulated views from port-, front-, starboard- and downward-pointing virtual cameras as if onboard an ROV, which was itself controlled using an Xbox hand controller.

The demonstrator was further developed to show how UK Hydrographic Office Assets (Maritime Foundation Data) could be digitised and overlaid onto the converted bathymetric scan data.

It was also possible to vary the transparency of this digital chart, thus allowing the end user to visualise the seabed and any virtual artefacts that have been modelled.