Greater Appetite for Unpiloted Aircraft in Combat Zones Fuels Demand for Simulators
But schoolhouses in the United States are finding it increasingly difficult to train unmanned air vehicles pilots because of their restricted access to the national airspace.
As a result, UAV operators are logging more flight hours in “synthetic” skies where mistakes can be corrected and the airspace is endless. In high-fidelity video games, more military personnel are now learning how to fly UAVs and operate the aircraft sensors.
The influence of video games has reached Fort Huachuca, Ariz., and other locations where students learn to operate the military’s drones. By the end of 2012, the armed forces will operate more than 250 classrooms for PC-based military training.
The simulation industry is taking note.
“W, A, S, D,” said Brad Johnson, who develops UAV training solutions for General Dynamics Information Technology. “Look at who we’re targeting and the generation coming up.” Recruits know from playing games that those letters represent the computer keys needed to move forward, left, backwards and right, Johnson said.
Though based in Orlando, Johnson works closely with his company’s simulation and training operation at Fort Huachuca, home to the world’s largest UAV training center. More than 350 General Dynamics employees teach at “Black Tower,” where they train students on the Hunter, Shadow, Gray Eagle and Warrior Alpha systems. The company is developing technology that would allow their students to practice flying missions without leaving the barracks or stepping foot in a classroom.
With the Pentagon looking to shave costs at nearly every turn, the simulation industry is searching for a one-box-fits-all solution to save money, time and space. Some companies believe that the video game industry has pointed the way toward “agnostic” systems, said Howard Phelps, a vice president for UAV training and simulation efforts at General Dynamics.
“Training dollars are very scarce for the government and they are trying to get the biggest bang for the buck,” Phelps said. “Soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines – while they need to know how to physically operate their equipment in a real environment, if you can achieve the same training objectives by using a simulation, it saves money.” Crashing a live drone could mean a million-dollar loss. An accident on a simulator only costs a bit of time, Phelps explained.
More and more UAV simulators will require nothing more than a joystick and personal computer. These portable systems will allow operators-in-training to practice on their own and switch between platforms and environments. Pilot a Predator over Iraq today, then fly a Raven above Afghanistan tomorrow.
“You can call them desktop simulations, laptop simulations, whatever terminology you want to use,” Phelps said. “But it is basically a PC-driven type of simulation.”
The Black Tower facility consists of more than 350,000 square feet of runways and hangars. Nearly 1,500 students train there each year, logging almost 5,000 flight hours. They spend just as much, if not more, time flying simulated drones. Depending on the system, students can spend a month or two on a simulator before launching a real bird. In some cases, soldiers complete 100 hours of simulation before just 10 hours of actual flight during training.
A recent report by Army Col. Mark McManigal discussed what he called a demographic shift of seismic proportions – that is, the ever-increasing number of Generation Y or “millennial” soldiers entering the service. These men and women do not always learn best in a classroom and gravitate more toward experimental and collaborative exercises in a digital space, McManigal wrote. The Army in turn created Virtual Battlespace 2, a game engine also used by the Marine Corps that allows units to conduct real-world mission planning and rehearsals by selecting from a menu specific terrains in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“Initial reports suggest that the VBS2 game and other gaming technology adapted for military purposes are an efficient and effective way to train and educate agile leaders and develop small teams for operations,” McManigal’s report concluded.
The last few years have seen the gaming influence stretch to UAV training, said Frank Delisle, vice president of engineering and technology for L-3 Link, the creators of a Predator and Reaper simulator used by the Air Force and Air National Guard. The system can mimic different times of day, adverse weather and thermal effects that can impact operations. Gaming can inject a huge dose of realism into a simulation with some caveats, Delisle said. The video game industry can provide the high-quality imagery to create a realistic urban environment over which to fly a drone, as well as a physics-based processing capability that makes people and vehicles move and react in ways they would in real life.
L-3 Link uses graphics company NVIDIA’s PhysX technology, which allows students to experience blazing explosions, reactive debris, realistic water, lifelike characters and other entities. Delisle cautioned that this technology cannot go straight from gaming to a military training setting.
“Most of their applications are made to excite the gamer, so characters run faster and jump higher” than humanly possible, he explained. “So there is a translation required to make sure you accurately replicate the world of the UAV and sensors, people, cars and things. Our goal is when [students] interact with our simulation environment, it’s hard for them to tell between our environment and the real environment.”
Just in the past five years, that gap between virtual and reality has closed remarkably. A lot of the “scripted Mickey Mouse capability” has been left in the dust, Delisle said. Companies are now developing simulations that can be plugged directly into a ground control station that is used to manipulate a real UAV. This allows for a quick switch between training and operation. Months used to pass between the two situations, Delisle said. Now they can be done about the same time.
The military services and contractors are inching closer to “true mission rehearsal,” using gaming technology to practice a combat task right before it’s undertaken on the battlefield. Already, the Army has used virtual exercises to prepare for live training. A unit at the Yakima Training Center, Wash., recently prepared for a live fire exercise by playing a video game that was set up to mirror the actual environment and targets on the range.
A demand throughout the Pentagon to do more with less also has industry investigating ways to simulate the flying of multiple UAVs by one operator, said Adolfo Klassen, chief technology officer for CAE Inc., a company that has developed a traditional simulator but is aware of the growing focus on shrinking the size.
A laptop can run all of the vehicle dynamics, including the sensors, Klassen said. With a joystick, an operator can take the same environment he sees with a high-end device into the field. “Gaming technology is certainly influencing the man-machine interface and how you control the operations,” he said.
Defense contractors also are experimenting with ways to operate war machines with everyday tools. Raytheon has developed a control system for unmanned aircraft that is based on the same technology behind popular games such as Halo, and the Army has used Xbox controls with ground robots. A former Navy pilot has even come up with a way to control a drone with an iPhone.
“Kids are used to the iPhone,” Phelps said. “That’s what they expect to see in a simulation. And if it’s not, there’s a sensing of, ‘This is not very cool.’ You probably have more power on your cell phone than all of the computers that put the first guy on the moon. Technology has increased that much. So you take and do training for a UAS operator on a laptop and they get the same training.”
With a cost-effective mobile training solution, students and their instructors can closely review strengths and weaknesses. A trainee could take a simulation on a CD home over the weekend and practice on his computer. When he returns to class, the teacher can see exactly how his student’s flights went.
“They can pull data out and say, ‘You flew 20 missions over the weekend practicing. You did really great at taking off, but every time you tried to land you crashed,’” Phelps said. “So when they come back in and actually go on the big simulator, they can focus on that piece.”
Not everyone believes that military simulations should look or feel anything remotely like video games. Brooking Institution Senior Fellow Peter Singer wrote in a recent issue of Foreign Policy that certain simulations mask the reality of the battlefield. Singer recalled a conversation he had with a former F-15 pilot, who said that virtual training gives drone operators no sense of what is really going on.
The distinction between a fun flying game and training for military action is not lost on contractors, experts said. “We’re tapping into the underlying industry, not directly into the gaming community. They’re trying to thrill and delight gamers and that’s beyond reality,” Delisle said. However, “without the gaming community driving the commodity market and all the investments driving all the hardware and software out there, we would not be where we are today.”
And where they are today is a delicate space between what young service members consider fun and what is necessary to be an effective UAV operator in theater. The hardware is becoming smaller, the systems less expensive and the controls more familiar, but the same lessons are being learned, said officials at General Dynamics.
Simulations today are not quite at the level of an action-packed summertime film, but the military to a certain extent follows Hollywood, Johnson said.
“I think that’s where the future is going,” Phelps added. “I don’t know how long it will take everyone to get there, but look how far PCs have come in the last few years.”