A steady surge in the demand for unmanned aircraft operators in the Air Force has resulted in a tenfold increase in the number of students attending the Predator schoolhouse at Creech Air Force Base, Nev.
Just about a year ago, the school was offering four classes a year that could accommodate 12 Predator crews. Each crew consists of a pilot and a sensor operator. By mid-2006, classes grew to eight a year, and each class has 120 crews.
“It’s an explosion around here,” says Danny Broyles, site manager responsible for the Predator training program at Creech. Approximately 150 pilots and sensor operators graduate each year from the Predator schoolhouse, says Broyles, who works for CAE, the company selected by the Air Force in 2003 to manage the Predator training program under a five-year $10 million contract.
Pilot students are assigned to Predator after serving at least one tour in another aircraft from active duty and the Air National Guard. Pilots from nearly every combat aircraft specialty have been assigned to Predator, Broyles says.
Most sensor operators — who are taught how to manage and manipulate the imagery downloaded from the aircraft — are first-term airmen and generally arrive at Predator training fresh from the Air Force intelligence school at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas. Some students come from the active duty senior enlisted and junior officer ranks of the intelligence community and the Air National Guard.
Flight training includes basic Predator operations for both pilot and sensor operator students. Each student must complete 11 flights and 22 hours of training. The basic Predator qualification course lasts 70 days.
The crews sit in a ground control station and operate the Predator using computers that are linked to the aircraft via satellite. This requires crews to think as if they were in the aircraft yet also operate computer resources that are not available to aviators in-flight, such as chats with units and agencies to coordinate missions, on-line weather, on-line flight planning and instant access to current intelligence.
Most students arrive with some basic computer skills. But that typically is not enough to operate the Predator in combat.
“Predator operations are way beyond the skills required to play video games,” says a CAE spokesman. “Predator crews can quickly become overloaded while operating in an environment that is observed at all levels of command.”
In coming years, the Air Force plans to upgrade the Predator with more advanced networks so it can pass imagery to other aircraft in the war zone. Those capabilities will be added to the training program, says Broyles.
In the more immediate future, the schoolhouse will receive three new Predator simulators, which are scheduled to be up and running in January 2007, he says.
The Air Force purchased seven new simulators under a $7.3 million contract with L-3 Communications’ Link Simulation division.
The first three will be shipped to Creech in December, says Dan Kelly, Link’s program manager. The other four will be delivered after the schoolhouse is expanded to accommodate the additional hardware.
The new simulators replace older systems that are considered outdated by modern standards, says Jeff Goldfinger, Link’s director for unmanned systems applications. The devices replicate the cockpit and the databases, as well as the brief-debrief stations used for post-mission evaluations.
Sensor operators can target and fire the weapon. “The simulator looks, feels and smells like the flight-worthy system,” Goldfinger says.
A major “training issue” for pilots is learning how to overcome losing their satellite communications link, says Kelly. The simulator will allow them to practice procedures under adverse conditions, as well as bad-weather operations, when they may have to maneuver and land with a cross wind or a sudden downdraft.
Predators have both a line of sight link and a satellite link. Pilots want to learn how to transfer control from one link to the other, Goldfinger explains.
Stephen Albert, CAE’s senior manager of business development, says unmanned aircraft are among the most promising growth markets for training systems, particularly if more government agencies outside the military begin to employ more UAVs.
The Predator recently got approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly in domestic disaster relief and rescue operations. This was viewed by industry insiders as a major victory for UAVs, which so far have not been welcome to fly in the U.S. national airspace because of safety concerns. “How do we make sure the UAVs won’t crash into airliners?” Albert asks.
The FAA hired Lockheed Martin Corp. to develop a “roadmap” for introducing unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system. Albert says that the FAA also intends to build a digital simulation of the airspace to fly digital mockups of UAVs and test their safety.
Both civilian and military use of UAVs will soar during the next 10 to 15 years, Albert says. The UAV business has escalated by 25 percent per year recently, he adds. “It’s one of the few growth markets out there.”
Civilian use probably will not take off in the near future. “There are 450 UAV types out there. How do you control all of them?” Albert says.
Nevertheless, he says, “You’ll see civilian and homeland defense requirements growing.” The FAA wants all aircraft to have collision avoidance sensors and be equipped for emergency procedures, but currently only large UAVs have these systems.
In Europe, where the airspace is even more congested than in the United States, experts predict commercial UAVs will be flying soon, especially in homeland security and law enforcement roles, says Shai Shammai, aerospace and defense consultant at Frost & Sullivan.
Qinetiq, a British defense technology firm that develops unmanned aircraft has built a new training facility in ParcAberporth, Wales, in an effort to attract new customers from the civilian sector, says Andrew Chadwick, program manager at Qinetiq. UAVs will be required to comply with the same safety standards as passenger aircraft, which is not the case with military UAVs, he says. So far, “regulators are not prepared to define the requirements. They are looking to the industry to define the requirements and test them at their own expense.”
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