But there still is no agreed upon method of training new UAS pilots - and keeping seasoned operators proficient - for future conflicts where U.S. drones will be flying in contested airspace.
Officials are puzzling out the appropriate combination of traditional flight training, immersive simulators and practice on operational unmanned aircraft that would constitute a standardized regimen to teach and maintain UAS pilot proficiency.
Some officials say new pilots can be trained in the virtual world alone, or nearly so. But technology will not yet allow a seamless transition to the real world, said
"The answer that most of industry will give you is ... that a simulator is the 100 percent solution" for training drone pilots, he said. "I would say it absolutely is not, at least not yet. In five years, maybe."
"The current state of unmanned systems training is still very much a work in progress," it states. "As forces draw down in theater and redeploy, the services will require comprehensive continuation and joint-forces training in the peacetime environment. Failure to prepare for this eventuality will result in a loss of combat-gained experience"
Veteran pilots transitioning to UASs can have 2,000 to 3,000 flight hours and habits learned over a decade-long flying career. Pilots' brains are hard-wired to perform certain actions in high-stress scenarios and have to be retrained, Purdy said. They require a specialized curriculum to make the leap from cockpit to control station, he said.
"When you get into a bind, you tend to go back to those old habits. There's a lot of habits we need to break if we want to turn a jet pilot into a UAS pilot," he said. "The students who have not had flight training at all, you can say in some aspects they are a better client to train as UAS pilots because all of those ingrained behaviors don't have to be broken and re-taught."
Rookie pilots receive a minimum of 20 hours of basic flight training in a Diamond 20 aircraft before transitioning to UAS. The
While some simulators boast high functional fidelity, they cannot realistically replicate the aircraft or how it responds to environmental phenomenon, Purdy said. In a UAS, aeronautical incidents like "ground effects" must be communicated to the pilot with gauges and alerts. When an aircraft flies within a full wingspan of the ground, it behaves differently. Simulators still cannot replicate that phenomenon, Purdy said.
"The major advantage with unmanned simulators is we can make the unmanned simulator exactly like what the pilot will experience while he is flying the aircraft. We can recreate exactly the room, the controls, the displays, everything," Schram said. "With a manned aircraft you have to simulate all of the stuff outside the windows and the special relationship of the aircraft to the ground and other objects. That is very difficult to do with high fidelity."
Predator drones and other UASs were rushed to the batdefield, as were the pilots to fly them. As a result, high-value unmanned systems crashed in training and on missions. The loss of aircraft inspired a parallel demand for training simulators.
The growing need for new unmanned aircraft and the increasing systems capability will require expanded investment in simulators to train pilots, the UAS roadmap said. "This expansion will need improved simulation fidelity and integration with live platforms for both effective [and] efficient use of resources. This will require improvements in training environments and classroom courseware."
When unmanned aircraft are brought home from
All of the unmanned aircraft assigned to
"As we saturate the skies with more and more UASs, especially when commercial flights are authorized by the
Another major hurdle to standardizing the military's approach to UAS pilot training is the rapid proliferation of the systems themselves. They range from the size of a commercial jetliner to that of a shoebox. Some can take off and land on their own and others cannot. Some stay aloft for days and some for a matter of minutes.
There are as many control systems as there are unmanned aircraft.
The best way to replicate flying a high-performance Predator or Reaper is with a surrogate that mimics the controls but is far less expensive, Purdy said.
System replication fidelity requires that an actual aircraft be tethered to the controls on which UAS pilots are trained, he said. Using a surrogate drone like Northrop's SandShark would avoid risk to expensive operational aircraft and free up Predators and Reapers for operational use, he said. SandShark is a remotely piloted aircraft designed specifically to train UAS pilots for the commercial and defense markets.
The SandShark or another surrogate aircraft would not necessarily replace operational training in an actual Predator or Reaper, Purdy said. It would help a pilot maintain proficiency and develop skills prior to taking control of an expensive operational drone at less than the cost of a simulator, he said.
A simulator can cost
Northrop does not intend to sell the SandShark. Instead, it plans to lease the aircraft to military trainers at airfields throughout the country on a fee-for-service, contractor-owned, contractor-operated basis.
"If you give me one hour of Reaper touch-and-go dollars, I'll give you 10 on the SandShark," Purdy said. "It does 50 landings per hour whereas a Reaper can do between 10 and 12 per hour."
"If you scratch the tail on a Reaper, you're talking hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. If a student crashes a SandShark, it costs the
Purdy warned that while the SandShark is ideal for learning to operate a UAS during takeoff flight and landing, surrogate drones are not ideal for mission-specific training. To train pilots and sensor operators to track terrorists and deploy ordnance, he said, a simulator is the way to go.
"For mission-related stuff, you can't beat a simulator. The graphics aren't perfect yet, but when you are training for missions, close enough is good enough. That's not so much the case with taking off and landing an airplane."
As simulation technology progresses, the complexity and authenticity of the virtual environments and scenarios will increase, Schram said.
"You have to make sure the student thinks he's flying the vehicle and not controlling the simulator," Schram said. "The UAS [simulators] will get there prior to manned aircraft. If we get the world environment right, then the simulation of flying through it will follow fairly quickly."
Ideally, the effect of environmental factors like topography and the actions of other entities, like other aircraft or enemies on the ground, will be unscripted and indistinguishable from real life, he said.
"Ultimately, there will be role-players that don't sound like droids. It's going to get a lot more fluid and more difficult to detect whether you're talking to a computer or a person," Schram said. no
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