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Grant Boosts Iowa's Virtual Soldier Program

Photo Courtesy of Karim Abdel-Malek

Santos and Sophia are soldiers that will never see combat. That’s because they exist solely as simulations in the University of Iowa’s Virtual Soldier Research Program. Thanks to a new $2.6 million grant from the Office of Naval Research, they’re equipped to model even more behaviors to prevent injuries for real-life marines.

Karim Abdel-Malek, the director of the program, says the stream of new designs of army equipment necessitates lengthy, costly trials that take up Marines’ valuable time.

“What Santos and Sophia can do is cut that time and cost using simulation. You can test this equipment virtually inside a computer and get maybe not one hundred percent accurate answer but at least a great understanding of what the gear and the equipment have, in terms of an effect, on the soldier.”

Part of the program’s efficacy lies in its ability to specialize.

“We actually take variation into account. You are able to really design your Santos inside the computer. You can make him a very tall guy, but not so strong. Or you can make him a very tall guy who has lots of strength, but not so much fatigue. So these parameters are things that we vary.”

And Abdel-Malek says this type of simulation isn’t limited to soldiers alone. One of the most promising fields of application is physical therapy.

“For example, if someone has back pain, they go to a physical therapist, the physical therapist can run the software that mimic[s] that particular person, trying to tell you, ‘Well, maybe, you know, the symmetry in your body is not correct, therefore you need to exercise your right hip joint a little bit more.’”

On this News Buzz edition of River to River, host Ben Kieffer talks with Abdel-Malek about the Virtual Soldier Program and the possibilities and limitations of simulated modeling. Also on the program, a discussion with Lee Rood of the Des Moines Register about the Midwest Academy abuse scandal; a conversation with Doug Thompson of Iowa State University about encryption, following Apple’s refusal to bend to FBI’s request; a chat with Sam Summers, organizer of the upcoming Hinterland Festival; and a discussion with Vanessa Miller of The Gazette about the legality of using ISU’s logo in conjunction with a pot leaf.

Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River