Sand boxes are for kids (of any age), and, if they are specifically for adults, particularly military ones, they are referred to officially as sand tables (but they’re still sand boxes). Military planners in any vaguely arenaceous terrain have always enjoyed the opportunity to sculpt landscapes in the sand, and those constrained by location and soils have simply resorted to sand tables.
LTC Edward Rowny (second from left) studies a sand table terrain map at X Corps headquarters in Korea with MG Edward M. Almond (with pointer), commander of X Corps, and other staff members, 2 Oct 1950.
Pfc. Michael Sanchez of 135th Support Detachment Rear Operations Center, Kansas City, and Sgt. 1st Class Richard Rajkovick of 2175th Military Police Company, St. Clair, develop a sand table in Camp Santiago, Puerto Rico
But technology moves on – in impressive ways – and with it, ever-broadening applications. Recently, Time Magazine included in its annual “50 best inventions” list “holographic mapping,” both as a general concept and with specific examples. Not being a subscriber, I have not been able to access the original list, but on their Techland site, they report on an different example of the same technology, and cite their earlier article. “Here’s how it works,” they write:
A computer pipes satellite imagery through a projector onto a tabletop sandbox (no really, an actual sandbox). Color-coded areas show where to move the sand (with your hands) to quickly create hills, mountain peaks and valleys. By the time you’re finished, you have a box with astonishingly accurate contours, overlaid by a topographical digital image that makes the whole thing look almost holographic.
Digital displays and sand have conspired in various art forms, but here’s something eminently practical, as well as visually compelling (see the image at the head of this post). The toy that they are referring to is the Simtable, a high-tech sand box that is being enthusiastically used by fire-fighting teams in Arizona and elsewhere to simulate forest fire spread and actions taken in fighting it. This was described in a news piece from Colorado’s 9news – follow the link to watch this – playing with sand, but in deadly earnest. This was back in June when Arizona fires were raging and the Simtable was coming in for serious use; from the 9news article:
COLORADO SPRINGS - Firefighters are using a new tool that resembles a sandbox like children play in to learn more about what a fire can do and where it can go. Chas Curtis started working on the contraption years ago. "We were building the first of these in a garage as prototypes," Curtis said. He went to the Colorado Springs Fire Department to set up his Simtable - a 3D interactive fire simulator that literally brings a wildfire to life. In a matter of minutes, his giant sandbox and advanced computer simulations are all set up and that's when the hands-on learning begins.
"It's really a paint-by-numbers way of creating a topography map, purple is highest," Curtis said. "What it allows us to do is really understand what the terrain is doing because the terrain is so important for firefighting." Then Curtis uses satellite imaging and software his team created to show exactly what the terrain looks like.
"The coolest thing about the box is really getting people to understand fire behavior," he said. After figuring out the slope of the area, Curtis starts a fire at the exact location of where a real wildfire is burning to track its movements. He can plug in wind speeds and direction to see what the fire will do next.
"We get to look at a fire as if we were in an air attack platform, one of the airplanes circling looking down on it," Bob Harvey, the lead instructor at the Colorado Wildfire Academy, said. He uses the Simtable to train firefighters. "So now we have an air tanker drop, and we'll see if the wind and the topography will let it hold," he said using the simulator.
The Simtable helps him figure out where the need to bulldoze, and where to send fire crews. The wind is always a tough variable, but Harvey says the tool is extremely accurate. The Simtable even shows firefighters what the fuels look like in the area. "Some of these fuels will burn hotter and faster than others," Curtis said. The simulator shows neighborhoods and which areas should be evacuated. It also displays roads, allowing enforcement to know where to set up roadblocks.
It's currently being used by fire crews to help battle the massive Wallow Fire in Arizona, and so far, 30 different fire departments and training academies around the country have one of Curtis' Simtables. Each costs $20,000.
After the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the State of California began using the Simtable to prepare for a tsunami on the west coast.
Fire departments can also use the tool to track chemical plumes during a hazmat situation.
So, these sand boxes have all kinds of applications, some undoubtedly yet to be recognised. They are being used for community awareness and education: