Officials tout growth in UI Virtual Soldier Research Program


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After nine years, officials at the University of Iowa Virtual Soldier Research say that their program, along with their virtual human “Santos”, is growing at an exciting rate.

Biomedical-engineering Professor Karim Abdel-Malek established the program in 2003, and shortly after, the program began creating Santos — a virtual human able to simulate countless number of activities.

Santos is perhaps best known for his military simulations, including being able to perform an escape from an overturned tank or carrying a 100-pound backpack for many miles.

The program has not limited itself to military simulations; its officials have also been involved with such companies as General Motors, Chrysler, and Caterpillar, among others.

Malek said the program has also worked with the UI Physiology Department and is involved with other scientific programs as well.

“Santos is involved in a lot of different things,” Malek said. “There are a few commercial entities similar on the market, but they’re not as advanced as Santos.”

Associate Director Jasbir Arora said the program has exceeded his initial expectations.

“It has fared very well,” he said. “When we started, we were working with new technology and concepts. The capabilities of this program have expanded exponentially.”

Arora said that while the program focuses on long-term goals rather than short-term, advancements would be made in the next year.

Over the program’s approximate nine-year life, it has brought more than $30 million to the UI.

Malek said some of the money helps employ Virtual Soldier Research faculty, staff, and student employees. It also helps fund spin-off technologies.

Santos has also been used to simulate the effects of a roller coaster on the human body for Disney, and the program is in the process of designing another project for the media giant.

“They have rides that a bunch of people from a great cross section of the human race come in; how do we make sure that these people are secure and these rides are fun?” Steve Beck said, research and development project manager for the Virtual Soldier Research, in a 2010 interview with The Daily Iowan.

Roughly 45 people staff the program, including numerous graduate and undergraduate students.
UI Veterans Center coordinator John Mikelson said the program is very beneficial for students.

“We have students who are engineers and are being presented with a great opportunity,” he said.

Mikelson said that there are approximately 600 students at the UI who are also veterans.

“I think that veterans can help the Virtual Soldier,” he said. “By getting someone who can show Santos how to move and work, it makes the process that much more realistic.”

Malek said he expects the program to keep growing and providing benefits for many people.

“Within one year, Santos will become more responsive to our interaction,” he said. “Within five years, his intelligence will go up exponentially. Within 10, he may even be smarter than us.”

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