There are now a number of large remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) fleets in service. The USAF, for instance, relies upon the MQ-9 Reaper, as well as the RQ-170 Sentinel and RQ-4 Global Hawk.
According to USAF Air Combat Command (ACC), the required roles vary based on the aircraft. In general, RPAS have: pilots who fly the aircraft and direct the execution of the mission in accordance with the commander’s intent; sensor operators who manage the payloads; and intelligence specialists who support the processing, examination and dissemination of the data collected during the mission. These personnel also support flight briefings and debriefings, ensuring adequate mission planning is conducted.
The RPAS community in the USAF is diverse, according to ACC. As well as its own operators, there are also RPAS flown by Air Force Special Operations Command, Air Force Reserve Command and the Air National Guard.
There is always a high demand for pilots and sensor operators, according to ACC, similar to the traditional, manned career field. ‘RPAS have been a frequently requested asset in the counter-violent extremist mission set, and we expect that demand to continue as we shift our focus to preparing for a near-peer conflict,’ the command stated.
These crews face myriad challenges, with the RPAS mission demanding that they think critically and make decisions with limited data in a changing environment. The nature of the operations also means that personnel work unsocial hours; for example, MQ-9 crews take part in dispersed operations, where one crew is located in the US and another in theatre. This can be challenging for crewmembers, who must work in shifts to meet the demands of the mission. Additionally, airmen must also learn to adapt to being in combat, despite being physically in garrison.
USAF training and education needs are led by Air Education and Training Command (AETC). According to AETC, the foundational aviation skills and knowledge required to fly an aircraft are the same across RPAS and ‘traditional’ pilots: areas such as airmanship, aircraft and weapons knowledge, crew resource management and task and risk management. RPAS sensor operators receive training in traditional aviation areas for crewed aircraft, such as fuel and airspace management, communication and checklist discipline.
‘RPA systems are evolving rapidly, new aircraft types and mission roles will drive changes to how AETC trains RPA aircrew members,’ according to the command. ‘The future of RPA training is inherently flexible and will continue to evolve as long as the air force continues to acquire new systems and expands the RPA mission set.’
The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) in June 2020 published a wide-ranging report on aircrew staffing and support in the RPAS/UAV domain. The report found that the USAF does not have enough pilots and sensor operators to meet its targets in the area. Moreover, it does not track its overall progress in accessing and retaining enough personnel to implement its combat-to-dwell policy, intended to balance the time RPA units spend in combat with non-combat activities.
The GAO made two recommendations to the Secretary of the Air Force. First, it said that a comprehensive metric, or set of metrics, should be established to track the progress of accession and retention efforts to enable sufficient quantities of RPA pilots and sensor operators to achieve the combat-to-dwell goals. The USAF partially concurred with this recommendation.
It noted that it already has metrics to monitor accession, production and retention, and that other retention metrics from other career fields would provide increased utility as the RPAS career field matured; however, it also acknowledged that these efforts could be better integrated to allow for greater analysis, including tracking progress in meeting the combat-to-dwell policy by 2024.
The second recommendation was that the Secretary of the Air Force should ensure that the number of instructor positions needed at the RPAS training unit at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, is updated by applying more complete, accurate and timely information to better meet the curriculum and instructor needs. The USAF concurred with this recommendation, noting that it had requested an updated study to determine the appropriate number of such instructor positions.
In a separate interview with Shephard, Lori Atkinson, assistant director at the GAO, said the in-garrison nature of much of the work is ‘a new construct for the air force’, which must consider how to manage such a large career field being deployed in this way.
Brenda Farrell, director of GAO’s Defense Capabilities and Management team, said that while there are shortages of pilots in other areas – which have also been the focus of GAO reports – the UAV/RPAS domain is ‘rather unique because it is such a new career field’. The systems’ full potential has yet to be realised, she noted.
‘We have years to go to really clearly define the career patterns for the pilots and the sensor operators of these unmanned systems,’ she told Shephard. ‘There’s still a lot more to come.’
Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a US think tank, said the nature of RPAS operations and the high operational tempo has made it difficult to retain personnel. There is a demanding rotational schedule, he said, even though the operators are often based in their home station. This is because the systems are being used frequently in real-world operations.
According to Harrison, ‘it’s made it a very difficult career field for personnel’. There are a number of potential solutions, he opined, such as increasing the use of contractors, who already conduct a range of instructor work.
RPAS training has a number of unique aspects, however. It is particularly well-suited to simulator use, Harrison noted, as it is possible to produce a close replica of the true working environment. ‘You can actually provide very realistic training for all kinds of contingencies, scenarios and emergency situations,’ he said.
The European Defence Agency (EDA) has developed a focus on the simulation side of RPAS training, notably through its RPAS Training Technology Demonstrator (RTTD), which equipped each of 11 national training establishments with a desktop medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) RPAS simulator, comprising separate pilot, instructor and sensor operator consoles.
They were connected over a virtual private network to enable local and distributed training. This work was conducted in partnership with the European Air Group, which designed operational scenarios and facilitated exercises. The RTTD project was coming to a close as of May 2021, with the agency preparing an evaluation process.
Simulators make it possible for MALE RPAS operators to explore, experiment and apply knowledge in an unlimited, risk-free environment, said an EDA official. RTTD scenarios have varied over the course of more than ten exercises, the official said, with the simulator offering the possibility to train continuously.
There have been a number of challenges, according to the official, notably around developing the project during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, there is strong potential for further development in the coming years, either through a new EDA project or the agency’s involvement in other working groups. Opportunities could also arise through the continuing progress of the Eurodrone MALE UAS being developed for Germany, France, Italy and Spain. ‘It is not only the evolution of technology but also the evolution of the utilisation of UAS that will show the way to future training in this priority capacity,’ the official said.
A number of companies have a growing focus on the RPAS simulator space. This includes MetaVR, whose Virtual Reality Scene Generator (VRSG) provides simulated sensor imagery for sensor operator training missions. It is part of the USAF’s MALET-JSIL Aircrew Trainer (MJAT), where it is coupled with government off-the-shelf software to create a ground control station simulator to train pilots and operators of the MQ-9 Reaper.
Garth Smith, president of MetaVR, said the major benefit of simulators in RPAS training is the fact that it reduces the drain on aircraft fleets, which are in extremely high demand for live operations and expensive to run for training missions.
‘While live training cannot be completely replaced by simulators, simulators allow RPAS pilots and sensor operators to train as part of gaining initial qualifications and to conduct follow-on training to maintain proficiency and currency in all required tasks, without requiring access to live aircraft,’ Smith told Shephard, adding that the MJAT Desktop Trainer is designed to run on commercially available PCs. This means that sensor operators do not have to access specific simulator hardware.
There are a number of challenges to consider, Smith added. The sensors on RPAS systems evolve over time and image generation companies must keep up with these new technologies so that they can be accurately simulated. Additionally, each sensor has advantages over other types depending on the environmental conditions. Therefore, operators must be trained to switch between the various types to find an image that produces the best contrast and detail. This demand means that software simulations must be accurate enough to highlight a sensor’s advantages in its ideal environmental conditions and represent its shortcomings when conditions are not ideal.
Image generation companies like MetaVR must work with subject matter experts continuously to ensure their representations of the available sensor types are as accurate as possible. Still, Smith noted that this is not unique to RPAS training and is the same for any method that relies on simulation systems.
He added that there is currently a shift to integrated mixed reality (MR) technology in simulation training systems, an approach that combines elements of the virtual and real-world environments. At present, this is being led by ground-based training systems, although it is moving forward for other applications as well.
MetaVR is working to integrate VRSG with Varjo MR headsets to visualise the data recorded by the latter’s eye-tracking capability; this would help instructors evaluate a trainee’s engagement responses (such as a pilot or a JTAC) in a simulated mission during an AAR, he said.
‘There is no reason why this technology could not be expanded in future for use in RPAS simulators also, to ensure trainees are not missing key events during the mission or neglecting key sensor outputs,’ Smith said.