A desktop system helps prepare operators to fly the ScanEagle unmanned aircraft. (Insitu)
As in countless other areas of military endeavor, the operators of unmanned aerial vehicles are turning to simulation to make training faster, cheaper and better. It’s a development long overdue; as UAVs came of age during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, sim development took a back seat to on-the-job training. UAV simulators and training now are catching up, accelerating their progress by leaning on the many tools and lessons available from sims in other fields.
Unsurprisingly, among the primary influences are flight simulators that train the pilots of manned aircraft. The Air Force and Army are already adopting many of the field’s techniques for their UAV sims. For example, UAV trainers are beginning to adapt simulations on the fly to add extra targets or weather.
Today, UAV operators do roughly 10 percent of their overall training curriculum on sims, said Martin Daigle, senior manager of UAS strategy at sim-maker CAE. That’s far less than the operators of many other kinds of platforms. Even the pilots of fifth-generation jets are slated to do nearly half of their training with sims.
“The military knows exactly what virtual training brings to them,” Daigle said. “They have multiple examples, and they use them and increase the use of them on every other aircraft. It’s just a matter of adoption.”
Fort Huachuca, Ariz., is home to the U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion, 13th Aviation Regiment, the service’s only unmanned aircraft systems battalion. The unit trains students — between 1,800 and 2,500 a year, including reservists, National Guardsmen and even Marines — to fly the Shadow, Hunter, Predator, Gray Eagle and other aircraft.
Now that on-the-job training is slowing, instructors there have the ability — and the responsibility — to expose students to as many potential problems as possible in the virtual world before they get behind the controls of a real aircraft.
“Simulation gives us a great opportunity to simulate anything and everything we can throw at them, so by the time they get down to actually operating the aircraft itself, they should be quite comfortable with it,” said Staff Sgt. Raymond Lemelin, a UAS operator instructor at Fort Huachuca.
UAV trainers are also capturing the immersive feeling that has become the hallmark of flight simulation. Chatter from air traffic controllers and simulated feeds from the UAV and forces on the ground stream in, imitating the rapid flow of information that operators have to cope with on the job.
“Not only are they flying a simulated mission, they don’t even know they aren’t flying it,” said Lt. Col. Victor Hamilton, who commands the 2-13. “They literally don’t know they aren’t flying it because there are people responding to them.”
The simulations are not yet perfect. The full-motion video streams, for example, lack the “jitter,” contrast and visual noise generated by sensors on actual missions.
“It’s something we just can’t simulate,” Lemelin said.
And just like their older brethren, today’s UAV simulations can suffer when their developers are unable to get all of the specs of the aircraft. It’s a problem the military has been battling for ages, and has not yet solved: persuading original equipment manufacturers to share with the trainers and training system developers.
“They were raised into this secrecy culture, and it creates a challenge to obtain the proprietary information,” CAE’s Daigle said.
But while it took decades to develop sims of this quality for airplane pilots, it has taken only a few years for UAV simulations to get up to speed.
Just as with manned aircraft, UAV sims are quickly expanding the number of roles they play. Today’s flight simulators can be qualified to level D, allowing the certification of skills that once would have required actual flight time. Virtual worlds once used for familiarization have been converted into fully immersive programs that let soldiers practice tactics, techniques and procedures. With this legacy, UAV sims will more easily slide into advanced training and certification without reduced need for the actual aircraft.
“The switch from live to virtual will be even easier for UASs than manned aircraft,” Daigle said.
For UAV students, simulation will soon “meet the needs of not only doing initial training but doing advanced training, payload training, aerial familiarization, all of those things,” said Matt Lynaugh, director of UAS development for drone developer Insitu. “With the right kind of simulation, you can do all of those.”
One of the biggest advancements in simulation over the past decade is the proliferation of environmental data sets that can be pulled into a sim. Ship trainers now replicate the vessels and coastlines for future sailors, while ground vehicle simulators can dump a convoy onto a virtual Afghan hillside.
That same fidelity is now part of UAV training at Fort Huachuca, where the control stations have embedded simulation abilities, allowing soldiers to fly a practice mission in realistic conditions, under enemy threat, before they actually put the aircraft aloft.
“It’s a full-dress rehearsal,” Hamilton said.
Much of the simulation software used at Fort Huachuca can be updated with recent information from the field, including new variables such as geographic or urban features, or even airspace requirements.
And just as branches of the military engage in emergency response or natural disaster training preparation, beyond their pure combat or reconnaissance roles, UAV operators also are prepping for emergencies by using sims.
“It’s 2013, it’s not 1907. We’re going to do a whole lot of humanitarian relief and civil support and community support operations in the future. It’s part of our full spectrum mission as directed by the aviation enterprise,” Hamilton said.
Because of the flexibility of the systems, more than just operators train there — future instructors learn how to run sims and take the knowledge back to their home stations, and foreign service members train as part of multinational agreements.
Though much simulation has been tailored to the Middle East because of U.S. military engagements, Hamilton said there would likely be a shift in exercises and training. He would not specify where the trainers would draw geographic data from, but the military’s changing emphasis on the Pacific and Africa make them likely suspects.
“Africa is the new Afghanistan,” said Keven Gambold, chief operating officer of Unmanned Experts, a UAV training and consulting company. As for the Pacific, Gambold said, the increasing ranges of UAVs suits them to large expanses. “That’s the only way you cover the Pacific,” he said. “There’s no other way to do it.”
Interoperable UAV sims are likely the way of the future, following the trend toward live, virtual, constructive training, which has been making strides and growing in popularity. The same technology that links distributed flight simulators also links multiple components in projects such as the Army’s Integrated Training Environment, or even connects players in virtual worlds that can be adapted to suit the UAV sim platform.
“One of the things I think we’ll see is integrated simulations, where a simulator for a UAV is hooked with a simulator for an F-18, which is hooked into a ground simulator or even infantry units,” said Insitu’s Lynaugh. “Having systems that play with those bigger simulations is going to be really key to being on the cutting edge and being able to survive in a budget-constrained environment.”
And as land and naval forces look to modeling and simulation for ways to work UAVs into their concept of operations, there will be a “definite requirement to integrate UAS simulation within the current weapon systems simulators, as well as within a distributed mission training network,” said CAE’s Daigle.
Part of the challenge is creating the right combination of individual and collective training on a multitude of platforms, said Col. Grant Webb, the capabilities manager for unmanned aircraft systems at the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command.
“One of the most demanding aspects of future UAS training will be the integration of manned and unmanned [MUM] teaming,” Webb said.
Most visions of the future of MUM teaming envision UAVs with enough autonomy to fly part of a mission unattended, or even enough to allow a single human operator to control multiple aircraft.
“That’s where I see the training piece changing,” said Gambold of Unmanned Experts. “The one pilot, one aircraft, commanding every piece of it is essentially going away.”
Instead, future UAV operators will act more like supervisors than pilots.
“It just needs someone to monitor it when it rings home and says, ‘Hey, I’m running out of fuel, I’m coming home,’ ” he said.
Lynaugh believes it might be awhile before UAV operators are handling a variety of aircraft simply because of the large workload and the possibility of an emergency where complete focus is needed on one aircraft. But he said a stepping stone would be training operators to better manage airspace, creating a new sort of generation of joint terminal attack controllers.
“You’re going to look at somebody who can think in three dimensions,” he said.
Demand for operators could go in either direction — more operators might be needed if UAVs are deemed a cheaper alternative to live flights or other reconnaissance, but fewer UAVs were requested in the 2014 Defense Department budget than in the previous two years.
The DoD requested around $3.7 billion for unmanned air system programs.
“You’re going to see an incredible increase in demand for UAS, at least for the products we produce for that war fighter on the ground,” Hamilton said.
As the military moves away from wartime operations, training becomes even more essential so that skills don’t atrophy. Lynaugh said he does not expect to see an overall decrease in training needs because of this focus, even if some systems are reduced or eliminated.
“I think within those [remaining] systems, you’re going to see training demand at least stay the same as it is now, if not increase,” he said. “In a budget-constrained environment, you start seeing people want to do more and more simulation, less use of the actual hardware.”
But at least so far at Fort Huachuca, trainers emphasize that using more simulators is inevitable because of the training advantages and drive toward technology rather than because costs must be cut.
“I think it’s going to move in that direction whether we get paid tomorrow or not,” Hamilton said. ■