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Visual Nation
A local firm makes national impact on defense

August 2011

What does 3-D technology have to do with the Department of Homeland Security? As it turns out, more than you might think. While for years certain industries have used video game-type applications in lieu of more costly training options, the same technology is being applied today on a larger scale to simulate operational situations for various government departments. And at the forefront of it all is Harford County-based technical service firm RTR Technologies, which provides modeling and simulation that allow clients to make better decisions regarding complex resource, operational and infrastructure requirements before implementing costly changes.

A visualization of an airport passenger in a simulation model allows RTR to test the impact of a 10-print fingerprint reader on the wait time for an arriving passenger inspection.

Formed in 2003 by partners Reed Rippin, Randy Rippin and Earl Thies, privately-owned RTR has skyrocketed from a $30,000 business started in the owners’ basements to a multi-million dollar firm with 40 employees and three offices. Headquartered on Hospitality Way in Aberdeen, RTR has satellite offices in Arlington, Va., and Lexington Park, Md., that provide support to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and to the U.S. Navy, respectively. In addition to modeling and simulation, RTR offers consulting and analysis services and employs a number of subject matter experts on border operations and aircraft maintenance.

Operations Research: A Primer

Before we look at how the latest technology has impacted this field, it’s helpful to understand exactly what modeling and simulation are and why they are needed. In short, a model is a representation of a system or process, while simulation involves running that representation over time to predict what will happen. This modeling and simulation allows federal agencies and companies to predict the impact of decisions prior to implementing potentially costly new procedures and systems.

For instance, RTR provides modeling and simulation services to the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps to allow them to better manage their fleet of aircraft. RTR’s modeling and simulation helps them determine what parts to stock, which parts to take when they deploy, how to schedule repair and maintenance and more. For example, should aircraft be inspected every 12 flight hours or is every 36 hours sufficient?

RTR’s models also are used to evaluate and develop ship specifications. After an RTR model showed that more people were required to meet a mission’s operational needs than could fit on the specific type of combat ship designed to carry out the mission, the Navy had to request an engineering design change from two of its largest contractors to modify the ship so that it could accommodate the additional manpower.

For DHS, RTR staff have been to nearly every port of entry to collect data to produce U.S. Border models. These models evaluate how facility size, number of lanes, a new security protocol or staffing levels impact operations, allowing DHS to reengineer the process for speed, security and an improved overall experience. For instance, what is the ramification of opening or closing a queue line or increasing or decreasing staff? Workforce analysis models developed by RTR have been used to obtain funding from Congress to increase staffing at all U.S. ports of entry after the models showed that doubling staff would reduce wait times and improve security, since overworked officers were shown to be less attentive.

A border pedestrian inspection facility was altered to improve throughput, security and the overall inspection experience.

Changing Technology

According to RTR Senior Developer Roy Gibson, while RTR staff have provided this type of modeling and simulation support for more than 20 years, the technology they use is virtually unrecognizable from that of the late 1980s. Thanks to a much broader existing software base and improved user interfaces, it takes far fewer people and is much less costly today to build and design software used in modeling. “We used to have to fight for time on a mainframe,” says Gibson. “We could maybe get a couple of hours at night. What you can accomplish in 20 minutes today used to take a couple of weeks.”

The end result of this improved technology lies both in cost benefit and the ability to answer previously unanswerable questions. Gibson says, “It used to be that you could model 10 squadrons of aircraft at a time. Now you can do 200 or more and compare how they use supplies and people in order to see the consequences of making an operational change.”

Perhaps the flashiest technological advancement lies in the use of new visualization tools, derived from the same graphics programs that run today’s video games. According to RTR Technical Director Scott Chaney, “The latest graphics tools allow us to show results in 3-D that most people can easily grasp vs. presenting in a spreadsheet format only understandable to people with a background in Operations Research.” These visual presentations allow government officials or Congressional oversight personnel to actually “see” the impact on vehicles and people at a port of entry and show the impact of changing a variable, i.e. queuing arrangements, in real time.

Looking Forward

So what does a company on the cutting edge of technology see as the future of modeling and simulation? According to RTR President Randy Rippin, the future of their industry is leveraging mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets to allow for onsite analysis, a secure upload of results to the “cloud” and the presentation of that information to management as a high-resolution visualization.

As far as advice for other area business owners looking to break into government work, Rippin says, “The government does a lot to help small businesses. Look for projects that have a small business set-aside or reach out to larger companies to explore sub-contracting opportunities. It can be challenging to break in to, but once you get in the door, the relationships can last for years.”

To find out more about RTR’s services or career opportunities, visit the company’s website at I95