The appeal of increased UAS operations has led to a gap developing in the production of trained UAS aircrew, together with pressure to keep training system fidelity at the same level as the operational platforms.
By Andrew Drwiega
If the explosion in the number of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) being used by the military appears to be high, then the corresponding increase in the number of students required to operate them has been unprecedented. According to simulation and training company CAE, the organization currently contracted to provide the United States Air Force (USAF) with training for General Atomics MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper crew training, there was a 540 percent growth in student numbers between 2009 and 2014.
Now, through a contract modification from the DoD, the Air Force has requested CAE to “significantly increase the number of training instructors it employs to support the USAF’s MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper training programs.” Most of these new instructors will be located at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., the formal training center for both Predator and Reaper operators.
There are already around 700 Air Force and contractor staff at Holloman supporting the remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) training program. Of this, 200 are active-duty instructors supported by 100 mixed contractor instructors and other support staff. Additionally, the aircraft are cared for by around 400 maintainers. The decision to expand will mean that the number of CAE employees, who currently represent around one third of RPA instructors, will soon comprise near to 50 percent.
CAE is currently half way through its training support contract, awarded in August 2013 and due to run until the end of September 2018. Previously it had provided training from 1998 through to 2008 when there was a change in the way in which contractors were selected, giving a preference to small businesses. However, after a five-year gap, the competition was opened to all sizes of business and CAE won it back to include both aircrew training services and courseware development.
The contract modification was necessary due to the increasing operational need for RPAs around the world which has created a larger demand for systems and aircrew resulting in a shortfall in the number of training instructors available to train the extra personnel needed. “Unmanned aerial system pilot training in the U.S. Department of Defense has received significant attention since the release of a Government Accountability Office report several months ago, and the Air Force is taking a number of initiatives to improve UAS pilot training,” said Ray Duquette, president and general manager, CAE USA.
There are currently four RPA squadrons at Holloman comprising: 6th Reconnaissance Squadron, 9th Attack Squadron, 16th Training Squadron, and 29th Attack Squadron.
CAE employees work closely with active-duty USAF personnel to provide classroom, simulator and live flying instruction for around 1,500 pilots and sensor operators annually not only at Holloman; but also at Creech AFB, Nevada; March Air Reserve Base, Calif.; and Hancock Air National Guard Base, N.Y.
In addition to actual flight and sensor operating training, CAE is also responsible for the further development of current USAF tactics, techniques and procedures with regard to RPA operations. The company continually develops the synthetic software and courseware which evolves into the updating of the training task list, course training standards (CTS) and course syllabi. In fact, according to CAE, it has the distinction of being the only USAF flight training unit where contractors fly the ‘go to war’ aircraft.
Another contractor at the site is L-3 Link, the company that delivers the simulator hardware as well as providing full maintenance support on the Predator Mission Aircrew Training System (PMATS).
Observing the increase in the military’s increase in op tempo and its corresponding effect on additional training, Robert Luthy, L-3 Link simulation and training director for Air Force and Navy strategic development emphasized the point that synthetic training is completely aligned with UAS training. “The cockpit tactile environment for the UAS is the same whether flying in training or on an operational mission. The aircrew is not subject to the physical forces of flying with the platform,” he said.
He added that the simulation industry was continually challenged to maintain its accuracy when it came to replicating operational conditions. “To achieve 100 percent of the training through simulation, the operational environment to include the entire battle space must be modeled to allow the total immersion of the aircrew in the mission,” he said.
As with any flight training, particularly manned fixed-wing, there is always continual pressure to keep currency with the front-line platform in order to replicate as accurately as possible all the phases on a sortie.
“The largest challenge for all UAS platforms is keeping up with the rapid changes to systems that are at least three to four times faster than manned platforms,” said Luthy. “New sensor capabilities and new weapons are added to platforms as quickly as they are developed. This propels rapid change management to all training programs to keep pace with platform advancement and evolving tactics.”
On 26 January, L-3 Link was also awarded a contract option for 34 new PMATS simulators by the Air Force’s Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson AFB. They will be delivered to 15 installations with the Air Force and Air National Guard. This now means that L-3 Link will have fielded a total of 67 Predator and Reaper systems in support of crew training.
The details of L-3 Link’s product involves the combination of a physics-based image generator, Synthetic Automated Forces generator, instructor station, with additional hardware and software. This allows the PMATS to present trainees with a high-fidelity environment that replicates aircraft performance while including mission systems for weapons, sensors, communications, data link operations, emergencies, degraded video feeds and environmental conditions. They are sufficiently adaptable to be used by Predator and Reaper aircrews who are either looking to achieve their initial qualification, mission qualification, or for more experience crews who need continuation training and for mission rehearsal.
U.S. Army Needs Sharp Visuals
For the last 10 years, the MetaVR’s Virtual Reality Scene Generator (VRSG) has been a key feature of the Multiple Unified Simulation Environment/ Air Force Synthetic Environment for Reconnaissance and Surveillance simulation system used by the U.S. Army to train its UAS operators.
The economic effect on the Army from sequestration has put more pressure than ever on saving cost where possible. The UAS training environment has been capable of delivering synthetic training, although it is not by any means a ‘cheap’ solution.
“The increasing adoption of simulation as a way of keeping training costs low has resulted in the need for greater realism in training simulation,” said W. Garth Smith, president and co-founder of MetaVR. “But to achieve this he emphasizes the need for high-resolution geospecific synthetic environments which are vital to retain the level of realism required.
Smith believes this has presented MetaVR with an excellent opportunity thanks to the development of small commercial UAVs that can work in tandem with high quality digital cameras. He said that because of this the company can “collect sub-inch resolution imagery with our own portable UAV for building high resolution terrain databases in our terrain tools and improve our image generator to render the sub-inch resolution terrain”
He also adds that improvements made to onboard sensors now allow for high definition (HD) quality video. MetaVR’s VRSG “can stream real-time HD-quality simulated video with KLV metadata, using the H.264 protocol, which is indiscernible in composition from the real UAV video.”
The challenge of linking synthetic training to some extent has been overcome by MetaVR through the standardization of the VRSG across multiple programs that need to be connected. “As an example our image generator is used for the A-10 FMT, the JTC TRS close air support (CAS) simulator and the Shadow, Aerosonde, Gray Eagle, and Hunter UAV simulators that use the universal ground control station (UGCS),” explained Smith.
“The A-10 FMT can be directed to target by a CAS soldier in the JTC TRS dome using a UAV feed from a Gray Eagle on his real Rover device while the grey eagle is simulated by an embedded component on the universal ground control station,” he added.
However, in the fight for business opportunities Smith is unhappy that the large corporates are being favored in terms of being selected by major UAS operators. “Too often large simulation training programs are awarded and take on a life of their own regardless of the quality of what they produce,” he said, believing that contracts would be better founded following competitive fly-offs. “Right now, it’s our opinion that the warfighters are not always getting the best possible simulator. And that’s why we have customers making alternative Predator and Reaper-based simulators (using our and a business partner’s software), in order to give the end users what they need.” He added that smaller resourced companies can play a positive role in developing specific systems. “Right now there is a large gap in simulation of UAV prototyping systems with electronic warfare components,” he stated.
“We’ve focused on developing accurate simulations that train UAS operators to perform basic flight skills within a larger mission context,” said Del Beilstein, AEgis Technologies’ vice president, business development technology solutions.
As an example, Beilstein explained that a simulated mission could require a pilot to fly to an area to obtain aerial sensor imagery of a fire-damaged area. First there are various planning and pre-flight steps necessary. Once airborne the pilot is multi-tasking between the actual flying and navigation. Then once on station they will need to operate the sensors and optics.
“Training with simulation within a mission context is a powerful way to simultaneously improve a pilot’s pre-mission planning, flight and payload management skills, and situational awareness,” explained Beilstein.
One of AEgis’ top priorities in developing a UAS simulation is to maximize the fidelity of their simulation to the actual UAS. It’s critical the simulation responds precisely to control inputs and provides the same feedback to the user as the real system. “Realism is our goal, so we work closely with UAS OEMs to accurately simulate the performance characteristics of their system and present simulated aircraft information and realistic sensor imagery just as the operator will see them in flight,” said Beilstein. “Experienced operators will notice inconsistencies and inaccuracies in a training system right away, so we engage UAS platform experts throughout our development process to help make our simulation experience authentic and realistic.”
AEgis believes that offering UAS simulation software embedded on the ground control station offers unique advantages. There’s no additional hardware required to enable training, so there’s less to carry, keep track of, and fix. An embedded approach also sustains operator muscle memory and lends continuity to training with OEM flight controls, user interfaces and system instruments.
AEgis’ Vampire is designed specifically as an embedded simulation for small UAS.
“We’ve delivered Vampire to several international customers and are starting to receive international interest in Vampire ITS, which is the classroom configuration of Vampire said Beilstein. The locally networked UAS simulation allows a single instructor to train 10 or more students simultaneously. The instructors can assign student training scenarios, inject emergency conditions, score performance and build training records for students. “We’ve delivered more than 30 ITS to the U.S. Army and we’re starting to see significant interest in the commercial and international markets as well, Beilstein noted.
Slower Progress in Europe
In Europe, UAS training has been slower to develop. The British Army, with its extensive experience of both the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, has lagged behind fielding some of the larger UAS platforms. On the September 29, 2014, the British Army began its first operational flights of its Thales Watchkeeper WK450 remotely piloted air system (RPAS) over Afghanistan, principally to assist in the withdrawal of UK forces. It was the culmination of an £800 million contract that had originally been awarded in July 2005. It is based on an Elbit Hermes 450 design.
Watchkeeper has had its share of delays, but the training of operators has been one of the major concerns in the timeline of its full entry into service. As late as October last year, despite 36 of 54 Watchkeepers having been delivered, a response to a request under the freedom of Information Act revealed that there were only four military pilots backed by a couple of civilians who were capable of flying them operationally. Officially the operators are called a suitably qualified and experienced person (SQEP). They were supported by 24 launch and recovery personnel together with a further 20 maintainers.
This represented a concern regarding whether enough SPEQs would be trained and ready in order to meet the target of fielding a Watchkeeper force to full operating capability by the target date of April-July 2017. The current objective is to train up to 24 SPEQs within the next two years with the final aim to have nearly 100.
At the start of the year the French Army decided to procure the Sagem Patroller as its unmanned tactical aerial vehicle instead of the Thales Watchkeeper. The contract would see the purchase of 14 UAS, 10 to be used operationally and four for training. No doubt this is a set-back for the British Army which would have expected to share training cooperation through the Lancaster House treaty on defense cooperation.
The notorious British weather has so effected training that the Army’s Watchkeeper training has reportedly been moved to the British dependency Ascension Island in the South Atlantic during the winter, and will stay there to conduct training between April and August 2016. In the UK, the RPAS were tested in Aberporth, west Wales, and at Boscombe Down on the Salisbury Plain. However, due to air space restrictions, the capacity for extensive training is limited.
The Royal Air Force also operates 10 Reapers for surveillance support and situational awareness, although they are destined to be replaced by the end of the decade by the next generation called Protector.
The Reapers are divided between two operational squadrons: 39 Squadron based in the U.S. at Creech, and 13 Squadron based at RAF Waddington in the UK. According to Penny Mordaunt, UK Minster of State for the Armed Forces there are six personnel at Creech undertaking a variety of training, test and evaluation duties.
In 2014, the UK and France set up a joint user group for Reaper operators that is tasked with working on air certification, interoperability, through life support and training. It is open to the U.S. and other European nations operating Reaper.
In Italy, CAE is currently developing a high-fidelity Predator UAS mission trainer which will be based at the Amendola AFB. Completion is expected by 2017. This follows a contract from the Italian Directorate for Air Armaments and Airworthiness last year for CAE to deliver an upgrade to a generic Predator mission trainer that was under development for the Italian Air Force.
CAE is working with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems and the Italian Air Force to collate flight test data from the Air Force’s own Predator A and Predator B/MQ-9 aircraft.
Chuck Morant, CAE’s vice president for global strategy said that there were numerous technologies that would result in a high-fidelity training device for the Italians. These will include performance model software that raises the fidelity of the aerodynamic, engine and flight control models; live sensor data to increase sensor and equipment simulation; and an increase in the fidelity of the synthetic environment. “Having been involved in high-fidelity simulation for a range of platforms over many years, CAE provides its own high-fidelity synthetic environment that integrates sensors, radars, computer-generated forces and other entities to create an immersive, realistic virtual world,” Morant said.”
He added that the new mission trainer will be reconfigurable to adapt to aircraft configuration changes and that CAE’s simulation engine conforms is “STAGAG 4586 compliant, which makes it interoperable by using a modular approach.”
Morant claimed that the new Predator mission trainer will be “the world’s highest-fidelity simulator for any unmanned aerial vehicle or remotely piloted aircraft.” His added that flight hours flown in this simulator will support pilot certification “in an equivalent manner to actual aircraft flights. An analogy would be how commercial airlines use ‘Level D certified’ flight simulators to qualify and license pilots to fly commercial airliners.”