Northrop Grumman's Sandshark UAV, known until recently as Sandstorm, comes equipped with software and weights that allow it to replace the takeoff and landing feel of different UAVs. (Northrop Grumman)
Getting a remotely piloted aircraft on and off the ground can be a tricky operation. Northrop Grumman is betting that a cheap training aircraft, about a quarter of the size of a Reaper, will help pilots learn to do it.
The Sandshark is a small UAV that can do multiple touch-and-goes for about a hundredth of the cost of one Reaper or Predator practice flight, according to Karl Purdy, who runs new UAV programs for Northrop.
Sandshark comes with a program called Longshot, which allows a pilot with a computer, broadband Internet access and a compatible joystick to fly the aircraft from anywhere — a key selling point as money for training travel grows tight.
The system requires one pilot on the ground to supervise the trainee, who might be at the next desk or on a computer thousands of miles away. The trainee can practice dozens of takeoffs and landings in a row, but at the first sign of trouble, the pilot can flip a switch and take instant control of the aircraft. The pilot can then tell the student what went wrong and correct the behavior.
“If somebody is doing something dumb, different, dangerous — or you lose Internet connectivity — the safety pilot immediately takes control of the aircraft and corrects the attitude of the airplane,” Purdy said.
Currently, the pilot and trainee talk by cellphone, but developers may add a Voice Over Internet Protocol communications link.
The UAV is powered by battery-operated electric motor, and flights last up to two hours. The Sandshark can replicate several types of UAVs, including Predators, Reapers and Hunters. By moving weights around, trainers can alter the pitch sensation and emulate the different aircraft.
The associated software can be programmed to give the same stick deflection and sensation as flying the actual aircraft, Purdy said.
“The Sandshark will turn at the same rate the Predator was designed to turn at,” he said. “It’s just manipulating some software.”
Within the past year, Purdy said, Sandshark has been demonstrated for members of U.S. Air Combat Command (ACC), Special Operations Command, Customs and Border Protection, and Air Education and Training Command (AETC), as well as the British Royal Air Force. Purdy said feedback has been positive but budget issues could be causing hesitation from the military.
ACC experts at the Launch and Recovery Flying Training Unit are evaluating Sandshark as a potential way to augment the existing MQ-1/9 Launch and Recovery training.
No one at AETC could comment at the time of publication, but AETC public affairs staff did confirm that the trainer has not been purchased.
Purdy claims Sandshark can save the Air Force close to $75 million annually and give student pilots additional training before they begin using the more expensive aircraft.
“Hopefully this sequestration will make everyone go, ‘We really are short on cash now. We’re going to have to find savings, and this looks like one,‘“ said Keven Gambold, director of operations for Unmanned Experts, an independent team of UAV subject matter experts.
A trainer that can do multiple touch-and-go landings for cheap would fit in with tighter budgets and might be welcome at the new UAV training schools at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and Camp Pendleton, Calif. The schools were established to provide more uniform training on small UAVs, typically less than 20 pounds, much smaller than the Sandshark.
While Sandshark replicates larger UAVs, Purdy expects the program to branch out to cover smaller aircraft such as the Raven or Shadow in the near future.
Simulators, while effective for many kinds of training, do not always replicate the same jitter or feel actually experienced during takeoffs or landings, Purdy said.
“There is simulation available,” he said. “Unfortunately, the simulators are not of the fidelity that will allow certification of this airplane for takeoff and landing.”
While simulation can be viewed as the crawl stage and flying the actual UAV as the run stage, Northrop Grumman sees the Sandshark filling in the walk niche — at least in terms of takeoffs and landings. It could also be used for refresher training or maintenance flights before missions.
In addition, Sandshark could be modified to include emergency procedures, such as flameouts. Simulators are typically used for practicing such incidents, in addition to mission planning and checklist procedures. The Sandshark, in contrast, is a simpler trainer and often leaves out some of the checklist procedures in order to focus on the takeoffs and landings. The goal is to give students a lot of practice and get the feel of the aircraft, though it could be adapted to add more of the procedural elements down the road.
Gambold’s one caveat for the trainer and remote learning capabilities, which he called “very, very clever,” was that systems for automatic takeoff and landing will likely become more common down the road.
“When that comes to pass, then the requirements for a launch and recovery trainer will start to fade,” Gambold said. “Do I think that’s a very near danger? No, but eventually, yes. If there is anyone doing launch/recovery in eight years’ time, then I hope it’s our enemies.”
Lauren Biron is the editor of Training & Simulation Journal.