The remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) acronym describes a specific category of UAS, typically systems like the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. These are remotely piloted, meaning they have human ground controllers. However, this approach is being superseded by other UAS that are proliferating with militaries around the world, most of which are smaller aircraft. These systems embrace computer-controlled operation.
According to industry sources, military forces are challenging unmanned systems to fly further and faster and with a smaller ground support footprint. The mission, however, remains the same – to provide information and effects to the end-users while remaining relevant and cost-effective. How that is done will drive changes to training.
Training systems integrators such as CAE have been developing RPA training systems and delivering services for a number of years and now have a global training partnership with GA-ASI. Examples of programmes that the company is involved in include: a zero-flight-time Predator Mission Trainer (PMT) for the Italian Air Force; the ongoing development of a synthetic training system for the RAF’s Protector programme; and the delivery of a comprehensive training system to the UAE Air Force, which includes academic, simulator and live-fly instruction.
‘We understand that there is really nothing unmanned about these critical systems because they all require proficient and trained individuals and professionals to operate them and deliver combat capability,’ said Jim Chittenden, director of strategy and market development for unmanned systems at CAE. ‘We are focused on integrating big data, virtual and augmented reality, advanced learning algorithms and artificial intelligence into existing products while developing new and innovative ways to train in a multi-domain unmanned environment.’
‘Training methods must also evolve as has become painfully obvious in 2020,’ explained Brian Ward of Insitu. ‘Schools across the nation [US] are struggling to negotiate this balance between social distance and effective education, but it’s already clear to us that distance learning – at least in our industry and probably in many others – is here to stay.
‘Training must evolve as technology advances, and customer requirements drive these advancements. To that point, we quickly leveraged online conferencing technologies this past spring to continue training students for our classroom events. Since then, and in very short order, our IT team has developed remote simulation capabilities which allow us to teach those more technical events, the meat of our initial operator curriculum, from virtually any distance.’
It is important to know that learning to fly an RPA/UAS and operate its sensors does not make a system effective. In order to maximise value for money and make the system operationally relevant, operators need to understand how to integrate and synchronise the UAVs with other collection capabilities – the ISR cycle.
Addressing this, David Willems, VP business development and strategy for UMS Skeldar, said: ‘Clients’ needs vary, which is why UMS Skeldar provides full evaluation of needs and focus areas to ensure that each training package is tailored specifically for the end purpose of the system. UMS Skeldar performs concept of operations support, including training, a full review of what the UAV is to be used for and advice on what the best platform is for their needs.’
Hardware requirements for training UAS operators differ greatly from that which is required to teach pilots of manned aircraft. To prepare a manned aircraft pilot, simulators must faithfully recreate the cockpit layout of a platform. Since UAS operators are physically ‘removed’ from the actual aircraft, there is no real cockpit to model and no motion to replicate. As such, the emphasis then shifts to accurate replication of the aircraft behaviours and autonomous logics.
Speaking about the contrast of pilot- versus computer-controlled RPAS, a GA-ASI spokesperson said: ‘Our operators have found the flexibility of a pilot and sensor operator directly controlling the system to be more effective in a subset of very fluid and dynamic operational missions. Where other systems may require lengthy and cumbersome procedures to adjust a pre-planned mission trajectory or target set, our pilots and sensor operators simply fly the aircraft or point the sensor to new taskings as required.’
That said, there is the case for a highly automated approach because human error is the most persistent and challenging roadblock to achieving 100% safety. Companies like Insitu invest time and effort into reducing human error incidents by streamlining checklists and procedures, prioritising messages to the operator and automating tasks and manoeuvres during critical phases of flight. One of those efforts is the ongoing move to the ‘family of systems’ format, eventually allowing all Insitu aircraft to be operated from one common ground control station (GCS).
‘From a training standpoint, this reduces the total time required for an operator to become certified on multiple aircraft, as only the specific differences with the new airframe itself will need to be learned after initial training,’ said Insitu’s Andy McAllister. ‘It’s not unlike the concept of an airline deploying fleets of “related” aircraft, different models sharing a common type rating.’
UMS Skeldar takes a similar approach with a common GCS across all platforms. The rationale is simple: the majority of ‘pilot’ skills lies in interpreting the instruments in the GCS and translating the data into safe flight. ‘Having a common GCS between the Skeldar V-200 and Skeldar V-150 reduces the training burden and allows for a mixed force employment,’ explained Willems.
Even GA-ASI admits that there are quite a few missions that benefit from a highly automated approach to manage and maintain better overall situational awareness. For these, it has developed the Multi-Mission Controller (MMC) and Metis, bringing AI tools, auto-routing capabilities and machine-to-machine communications to its systems.
‘These capabilities have the potential to dramatically increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the US Air Force’s MQ-9 enterprise by relieving aircrew manning requirements during certain flight profiles,’ said David Alexander, president of GA-ASI. ‘MMC and Metis, when combined with SATCOM launch and recovery and our advanced cockpit, will reduce aircrew manning by 50%.’
MMC is an important evolution in the way operators control RPAS. Using a single pilot to operate multiple aircraft enables more efficient use of manpower when conducting current MQ-9 operations by increasing loiter time for highly tasked MQ-9 crews or expanding mission profiles. As for Metis, it enhances communications between supported units, aircrew and intelligence cells, making the ISR cycle faster and more efficient.
The USAF Air Education and Training Command (AETC) is responsible for pilot and aircrew training. The service currently operates the MQ-9 Reaper (also known as the Predator B) as its principal RPAS. Delivered to the USAF in 2007, the Reaper was originally operated by air force pilots who came from manned platforms.
The USAF’s theory at the time was that RPA pilots require many of the same skills and knowledge as pilots of traditional aircraft, not to mention that these individuals were conversant with operational doctrines. That theory is undergoing debate as some feel that pilots who have operated manned platforms bring biases to the RPA community, whereas fledgling pilots come with no bias at all.
Today, all USAF aviator candidates undergo initial flight training (IFT) which is provided by L3Harris in Pueblo, Colorado. During IFT, all pilots and combat systems officer and RPA pilot candidates receive their foundational indoctrination to military aviation and build their basic aviation skills. The RPA pilots get the most training, which is about 39h in the DA-20 trainer aircraft.
RPA pilot students then attend the RPA Instrument Qualification Course at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph (JBSA-Randolph), a simulator-only course in dedicated T-6 FTDs. Finally, a month-long RPA Fundamentals Course at JBSA-Randolph is designed to give new pilots without operational experience the tactical grounding experience needed to enter the formal training units (FTUs) for various platforms like the MQ-9 and RQ-4.
MQ-9 crews currently train with the Predator Mission Aircrew Training System (PMATS), a simulator developed by L3Harris Link that reproduces pilot and sensor operator aircrew stations. PMATS comprises a user interface that utilises GA-ASI’s GCS hardware.
The simulations delivered in PMATS support both initial qualification and mission training, including emergency and abnormal procedures training. PMATS is integrated with instructional systems, including an IOS that supports numerous instructional requirements such as crew training, monitoring and evaluation. The system provides training in standalone mode and local area network mode. PMATS was also designed to participate in a distributed environment via the USAF’s Distributed Mission Operations (DMO) portal, enabling MQ-9 aircrews to conduct collaborative mission-level training with other DMO-compliant platforms.
Maj Gen Craig Wills, Commander 19th Air Force, told Shephard that during 2008-12, when RPA operations ramped up to a ‘huge number’, the USAF ‘produced a training system as quickly as we could to reflect the increased capacity’.
‘Unfortunately, here we are ten or 12 years later and we have basically the same system, and this gets to the part where the vice-chief and chief for years have been pushing us to be more innovative and ask ourselves: “It’s great that it used to be awesome, but is it really what we need today?” The question isn’t: “Were we producing great RPA pilots and sensor operators?” We were. The question is: “Is the training system relevant for where we need to go in the future?” And the answer is: “Probably not.”’
The US Army Joint Technology Center and Systems Integration Lab (JSIL) has developed a training tool which enhances the USAF’s PMATS programme. The plug-and-play MALET-JSIL Aircrew Trainer (MJAT) uses MetaVR’s Virtual Reality Scene Generator (VRSG), which is coupled with government off-the-shelf software that appends to a tactical MQ-9 GCS in order to convert it to a training simulator. It provides RPA operators the ability to conduct simulation training as part of qualification and follow-on continuation training to maintain proficiency and currency in all required tasks.
The complete MJAT family of systems includes the MJAT as well as the MJAT Stand Alone Trainer, which uses GCS-like hardware to provide a training-only solution, and a Desktop Trainer, which is used for classroom familiarisation work.
According to MetaVR, the deployment of MJAT began in 2016, with 56 systems (with VRSG) installed at USAF sites across the country. JSIL purchased 88 additional VRSG licences in 2019, and in 2020, 171 licences will support the continued roll-out of MJAT as an upgrade to the USAF PMATS programme. The existing PMATS devices are being progressively shipped to the JSIL facility in Huntsville, Alabama, where the original PMATS configuration is being upgraded with the newly updated simulation software suite.
Like other JSIL-developed trainers, the embedded MJAT uses the Air Force Synthetic Environment for Reconnaissance and Surveillance software to stimulate the tactical vehicle control software to simulate GCS functions: air vehicle control, payload control, weapons control, communications, send-and-receive video data and mission planning.
VRSG simulates the Reaper’s camera payload by streaming real-time HD-quality video with key-length-value metadata. This allows operators to train using the same hardware that they use to operate the actual aircraft in real-world missions, stimulating real ISR systems and interoperating with networked Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) simulators.
The MJAT simulators also use Battlespace Simulations’ Modern Air Combat Environment (MACE) for scenario creation and computer-generated/semi-automated forces. This software is also used by JTAC simulators so systems that use MACE and VRSG can enable training for MQ-9 Reaper operators and JTACs in a joint, simulated training environment that can identically replicate real-world missions via Combat Air Force DMO.
Brad Opp, a retired Reaper FTU instructor pilot, could not be happier with the MJAT upgrade: ‘We didn’t have a simulator back in 2007. Every sortie we flew for training had to compete between our FTU course, which was initially based at Creech AFB, and our test and evaluation group still testing different systems and future improvements to the MQ-9.
‘We only had two or three planes available per day to accomplish everything, so every minute in the GCS was important for our training. We didn’t have much to work with as far as tactical scenarios for training. Mostly, we just practised attacks on “tactical” bushes in the desert. Eventually, we were able to hire ground training support that would ride around on motorbikes to add to the realism, but we still couldn’t train the way we fight.
‘The upgrade to the MJAT has allowed us to fully execute complex training scenarios remotely, just the way we fight. These training events are complete with connected JTACS, other fixed-wing fighter aircraft with a DMO white force controlling multiple entities in each scenario.’
The USAF’s RPA training programme is currently undergoing a re-evaluation with the goal of increasing throughput by way of efficiencies. The overarching goal of this effort – dubbed RPA Training Next – is to take lessons learned from the (manned) Pilot Training Next initiative and develop a revitalised scheme to train new RPA crews. This is directly tied to AETC’s effort to transform training for the USAF.
Wills said: ‘We have a bad habit sometimes in the air force of assuming that if something’s been around for three or four years that it’s a tradition. The fact of the matter is the way that we do business was not preordained from time immemorial; we have the opportunity to shape it, and we have the responsibility to shape the way we train to match up what the air force needs in the 21st century, and that’s what we’re trying to do on the RPA side.’
He added: ‘RPA Next came over to 19th Air Force on 1 June, and so we’re trying to get that where it needs to be. The question I’m asking the team, and the question that we’re getting back from the field though is: “What is the right system? Copy all of what we’re doing in the short term? But what should it look like for the long term? Does it make sense to have an undergraduate RPA model and a graduate RPA model, or do you just need a model – do you just need a training programme?”
‘Instead of training here at Randolph on something that’s a simulation of an RPA, couldn’t you just train on a real live RPA system and then eliminate an FTU and find yourself in a position where we save a bunch of money, a bunch of time and produce a more relevant graduate? I don’t know, but we’re going to find out, so this is a good example where we’ve got some work to do to make sure things are relevant.’
The need to train RPAS/UAV pilots is greater than it has ever been before. Industry has observed this trend and developed its own training establishments to help ease the backlog.
Speaking to Shephard was Matt Martin, a former MQ-9 pilot and current L3Harris strategic development principal: ‘We’re directly addressing a long-standing gap in MQ-9 training capacity by developing a commercial venue for MQ-9 qualification training. We’ve stood up a commercial, simulator-based MQ-9 schoolhouse at our L3Harris Arlington Training Center in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
‘Our MQ-9 mission training system has been certified by the Department of Defense to train every task in every air force MQ-9 syllabus. We’ve developed our own course to take commercial pilots off the street with no RPA experience and give them the equivalent of an MQ-9-type rating – complete with ISR mission training and leveraging our latest training capabilities – in a fraction of the time it’s taken in the past.’
Similarly, GA-ASI’s North Dakota-based Flight Test and Training Center (FTTC) demonstrates a dramatic reduction in the time required to train qualified aircrew, thereby expanding the company’s ability to meet the growing demand for UAS and the aircrew required to fly them. Students can complete their UAS training in as little as two months – pilots complete 15 flights (36h), 25 simulator lessons (59h) and 114h of academic studies. Sensor operator training time is similar with the exception that slightly fewer hours are required before graduation.
A new PMT was installed at the FTTC in March. Produced by CAE, this will be used to train MQ-9 Block 5 operators. The device provides high-fidelity training across the full spectrum of mission training, allowing GA-ASI to update its syllabus to rely more heavily on simulators and reduce potential airspace and weather impacts. The company anticipates the CAE-built PMT will be the first of several to be fielded for its customer base.
Chittenden explained: ‘CAE’s aircraft-specific mission trainers simulate specific RPA platforms and sensors and can be networked together to optimise readiness while minimising the use of live assets. Our MQ-9 PMT has realised such a high degree of fidelity that both the flight model and the aircraft’s sensors on the simulator were certified as Level D equivalent, the highest qualification for flight simulators.’
Europe’s UMS Skeldar provides a structured programme and practical training for pilots and technicians at its airfield in Hultsfred, Sweden. This provides a safe environment and, importantly, keeps the technicians and pilots working together as a team. This element of the UMS training is central to the company’s philosophy of reducing human factor error and enhancing crew resource management skills. Training can also be delivered online through a secure portal. This method is used if clients cannot travel for academic elements of the course, an option which has been of great use during the COVID-19 restrictions.
ISR is the future of modern warfare.
‘Our training programmes are delivered at our operational centres or at customer premises, depending on requirements and suitable available facilities in the case of operational and flight training,’ said Willems. ‘Three of our largest contracts to date all include training provision – covering ISR, pilot training and maintenance – for the Royal Canadian Navy, the German Navy and the Belgian and Royal Netherlands Navies.’
For the first half of 2020, UMS Skeldar had a team operating in Alberta, Canada, to deliver a Canadian Special Operations Forces Command contract that was won alongside QinetiQ a year ago. ‘We ran training courses for QinetiQ, including a “train the trainer” course to enable QinetiQ staff to provide the course to others in the future,’ explained Willems.
UMS is now working with end-to-end ISR provider 360iSR to deliver specialist operational support from CONOPS development to mission-specific training for ISR operators, sensor operators and intelligence analysts.
‘ISR is the future of modern warfare and of decision-making in complex environments. We are providing to UMS an end-to-end ISR training solution, from the initial operating concept to full operational capability,’ said Ewen Stockbridge Sime, founding director of 360iSR.
Willems added: ‘This new partnership will add significant weight to our training provision moving forwards. The dynamic nature of the mission space, especially in the military and maritime sectors, demands that we not only stay up to date with our wider UAV services but also continually improve them in order to stay ahead of both the industry and the impending regulations.’
UMS’ training programme goes further in that it also includes modules that enable a crew and commanders to become effective, integrated and synchronised UAS operators. Courses include ISR command, mission intelligence commander (coordinator) air-land integration, collection management, senior leader and command training, mission-specific workup training and CONOPS development. The goal of this approach, as stated by UMS, is to reduce the training burden on the client/operator, which makes the UAS effective and capable sooner, thereby saving money for the client.