Training Day

A soldier aims across the battlefield at an enemy combatant. She pulls the trigger, and a laser beam from her rifle zaps a sensor on her target’s uniform. Hundreds of yards away, a training official’s hand-held controller immediately receives a radio signal indicating the shooter made a “kill.” The casualty is taken out of action.

By simulating weapons’ effects, the U.S. Army has safely trained soldiers since the 1970s. This year, UNITECH deploys its high-tech innovations to upgrade the experience.

UNITECH (No. 61 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 list with $58.7 million in sales) won a $10 million Army contract to design and manufacture the gadgets battlefield referees use to control and assess multiple integrated laser engagement simulation events. The Centreville, Virginia-based company is producing 7,000 full-featured universal controller devices (UCDs) and 12,000 keychain size microcontroller devices.

Fitting into a military holster, a UCD looks like a 9mm pistol. Embedded on its side is a 1×1.5-inch LCD screen. “The beauty of the system is that it is user friendly and easily integrates into the training environment,” says William C. Barfield, vice president of simulation systems at UNITECH’s Orlando office. Four up-and-down arrows enable field judges to easily navigate UCD menus as if using a TV remote control.

In the past, field observers lost real-time interactivity because of the size and complexity of earlier generations of this equipment. And at less than $1,200 per unit, UNITECH’s UCDs cost much less than prior models. UCDs have massive flash memory data storage capability, which provides easy expandability for future Army training requirements. Software can be modified via infrared data exchange or radio frequency links. One UCD model, which trainers use 75% of the time, can collect data from 5,000 soldiers that can be downloaded for future review.

The small size, easy-to-navigate menus, and intuitive operation were winning features of UNITECH’s product. “Probably the thing that really put it over the edge was the maintainability of the device and the reliability,” says Lt. Col. Perry Smith, product manager for live training systems for the Army’s Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training, and Instrumentation.

By the end of June, UNITECH was successfully testing its UCDs in harsh environments: extreme hot and cold temperatures, full immersion in water, driving rain, sand, electromagnetic interference, and 6 Gs of vibration. The Army required Unitech to pass these rigorous tests before approving its high-tech gear. By August, controller devices will be in full production. The contract is for one base year with three one-year options.

In preparation, last year the company made a “seven-figure investment,” says UNITECH Chairman and CEO Earl W. Stafford. UNITECH expanded its Orlando division, adding a 40,000-square-foot facility, equipment, and manufacturing capability. “The innovations that UNITECH have developed far exceed the military applications, and we’re looking at providing that in other segments of federal, state, and local governments, as well as in the commercial area,” says Stafford. With this and other awards, Stafford anticipates UNITECH’s 2005 revenues to exceed $80 million.