Increasing demand for realistic mission crew training is extending to the unmanned sector, where dramatic growth is expected in the next decade.
"From a global market perspective, customers continue to seek more effective, efficient ways to do training," says Martin Gagne, group president, military simulation products, training and services for training organisation CAE. "It's all about gaining team training and mission rehearsal capability.
The customer is seeking a dynamic synthetic environment, one that enables them to see the effects of dropping a bomb - the crater on the ground - and enables them to preserve equipment for operational missions."
CAE research data indicate demand for similar training capabilities are set to run apace with unmanned air system (UAS) market growth. Five years ago, about 500 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) - mainly military - were in operation worldwide.
Now there are about 1,300 UAVs flying, with 7,000-8,000 more to be launched in the next 10 years. Each vehicle would require two crew: the UAS pilot, or air vehicle operator, who guides the aircraft; and the sensor pilot operator, or mission payload operator, who operates the sensor ball or camera under the aircraft.
In addition to the "cockpit" crew, each mission would require one or two mission co-ordinators: either intelligence-specific or operations-specific.
To meet those demands and to address training shortfalls in the UAS arena, CAE developed the Unmanned Aerial System Mission Training Solution (MTS). Most simulated UAV training is platform-specific. CAE describes its product as "platform agnostic" because it is reconfigurable to any UAS or vehicle payload.
It is built on a common database and designed for NATO Standardisation Agreement 4568 compliance, which allows an operator to switch between real and synthetic environments and enables system interoperability among allied forces.
The MTS allows operators to switch training environments to suit the changing battlefield environment. The number of scenarios the system can recreate is "limited only by the time and money it takes to build the scenarios", says Chris Stellwag, CAE director, marketing communications - military.
The system includes a two-place ground control station, for the UAS pilot and payload specialist, as well as a station for the instructor, who can develop, monitor and change the environment and scenarios. The system also has research and analysis capability. CAE's solution is simulating medium-altitude long endurance UAVs, such as the US Army's General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Gray Eagle.
CAE offers simulation of long-endurance UAVS such as General Atomics Aeronautical Systems' Gray Eagle
The sensor suite includes imaging, radar (SAR synthetic aperture), electronic warfare, countermeasures (infrared jammers), signal intelligence, and effectors, or smart and laser-guided weapons. In addition, software automatically generates friend-or-foe entities on the battlefield.
Gagne says the visualisation system creates an out-the-window, realistic representation of the environment the warfighter expects to encounter. That claim was substantiated at CAE's product demonstrations at November's I/ITSEC 2011 conference in Orlando, Florida.
In one scenario, the UAS ground control crew chased a white pick-up truck as it careered at high speed through the narrow, winding streets of downtown Baghdad amid numerous other white trucks, while communicating with mission co-ordinators and special forces on the ground waiting to pick up the occupant.
The mission commander's role was played by Keven Gambold, a 21-year veteran who served tours in Kosovo and Iraq. He is a former Panavia Tornado pilot for the UK Royal Air Force, and flew General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Predators with the US Air Force.
A Predator flying over Afghanistan
Gambold is now director of operations for Unmanned Experts, a consultancy partnering CAE to develop and provide UAS training solutions. The scenario was based on a real-life event, says Gambold. "Tracking a car is difficult - and there are hundreds of white pick-ups in Baghdad. Imagine if it was the first time you were in that seat chasing that car. Special Forces doesn't want to hear, 'One minute please, I'm training, do you mind?'"
Gambol believes the ability to train an entire mission team at a low cost compared with in-flight training - and in a safe environment - is the "missing link" in UAS training. He pointed out the deterrents to establishing standardised crew training.
"First, there is a pervasive belief among almost every company, country and ministry of defence that learning to operate a UAV is easy. Why bother going through formal training? I can do this from my PC. UAVs are cheap," says Gambold. "Furthermore, there is no such thing as a standard civil UAV licence; operators are licensed for a specific operation in restricted airspace."
Gambold upholds the opposing view: a UAV operator should understand flight regulations and how to safely operate in airspace.
As many nations rush to UAS platform acquisition and operation, the training element is often neglected, explains Gambold. In fairness, that is mainly down to the urgent need to deploy to the battlefield. As a result, the first time crews operate in UAS airspace is often during real operations, he adds.
"Live" training with UAVs is restricted. Commercial airspace is closed to them and the assets - the vehicles - are needed on the frontline. Also, UAS training qualifications vary among the military. The USAF, for example, requires operators to hold a pilot's licence. Not so the US Army.
UAS training curricula vary greatly. Unlike commercial aviation, the length and scope of training depends on the needs of the UAS customer. The general idea is to get in the minimum amount of hours in the shortest possible time, again because getting to the frontline is a priority, says Gambold.
The USAF recognises the need and offers UAV pilot training at its Weapons School at Nellis AFB, Nevada. Few candidates are able to complete the course because they must deploy to the frontline, says Gambold.
The price of CAE's UAS Mission Training Solution varies widely, based on customer requirements and training tasks, says Stellwag. There are simulations to fit a wide range of customer needs. Costs can range from a few hundred thousand dollars for a desktop trainer to a multimillion-dollar outlay for a UAS mission training system.
The UAS market continues to grow. New technologies - from fuel cells to micro-optics and laser power to artificial intelligence - are emerging daily in military and civil markets, says Gambold. As the market grows, so will demand for training. "The defence/military sector has been the locomotive of technological advancement," says Gagne. UAVs are becoming more relevant globally as nations, including Canada, seek more capability to patrol borders, waterways, and natural resources.
This points to a growing need to set UAV licensing, training and requirements for operating in civil airspace. The International Civil Aviation Organization is establishing guidance on personal UAV licensing, notes Gambold.
However, it now focuses on remotely piloted aircraft managed on a real-time basis, compared with autonomous systems. Gambold presented a paper at the 2011 UAS Training and Simulation Conference, setting criteria for a Commercial Pilot's Licence (Unmanned).
Other nations are working with respective aviation authorities to find solutions. The USA, for example, has been working with the FAA and stakeholders of the National Airspace System to find ways of safely integrating manned and unmanned operations into the civil airspace.