Unmanned aircraft training goes on the road



To train operators of the unmanned aircraft Shadow, Hunter and Gray Eagle, the Army uses Institutional Mission Simulators, which are mockups of the ground control stations from which aircraft are operated in the field.

The simulators are true to size and form of the actual ground stations and thus not very easily moved.

So when the need arose to be able to quickly and easily move mission simulators to the field or to Army posts around the world, the Joint Technical Center/Systems Integration Laboratory at Redstone Arsenal, where the IMSs are built and maintained, developed a portable solution.

The JTC/SIL developed, built and now maintains approximately 20 Portable Institutional Mission Simulators, or PIMS. JTC/SIL is part of the Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center’s Software Engineering Directorate.

“We wanted to have the same full functionality (as the IMS) and to be able to move it rapidly,” Will Bishop, unmanned aircraft trainer system division chief, said. “Basically, part of it folds up and you just snap a front and a back on it and you can ‘FedEx’ this thing anywhere in the world. It’s very rugged; holds really well.”

JTC/SIL technical director Jim Jones said the development of the portable trainers arose out of a need for the training systems to be transported to various Army facilities for training exercises and to the warfront itself for Soldiers in the field to plan and practice maneuvers.

“The larger IMS trainer system can’t be buttoned up and shipped to a location for training, so these are things we can send out quickly and we can set up quickly,” Jones said. “It’s made generally to be used for a period of time and then shipped back and returned here (to the AMRDEC).”

Unmanned aircraft training devices lead, for manned and unmanned teaming, Ted Hazen, said the need also came from the war and Soldiers’ needs in the field.

“Guys would go over, especially early on, and a lot of them would end up leaving their equipment behind for the next unit,” Hazen said. “Well, they go back to Fort ‘XYZ’ and they don’t have their system. They have aviation currency requirements, proficiency and hour requirements, they couldn’t meet them.”

Steve Grady, training aids, devices, simulators and simulations lead, recalled a major from the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii visiting AMRDEC who said, “My stuff’s gone. I’ve got new Soldiers, how do I train them? Can I borrow that?”

“So we sent a PIMS to Hawaii, trained them there, and were actually able to do local orientations on the place they were going to go fly in Iraq with the new Soldiers,” Grady said. “The sergeants are saying, ‘That’s exactly what it looks like.’ They went to Iraq, and when they were about to return they told replacement units, ‘Oh, by the way, call these guys in JSIL, because you’re not going to have your equipment, they’ve got some stuff they can help you with.’ And it just kind of snowballed from there.”

Soldiers in Alaska use the portable trainers to maintain accreditation when winter weather conditions prevent them from going outside and flying actual hardware.

“All of our systems are accredited to maintain flight time requirements and to maintain currency,” Bishop said. “So when the weather is good, they can go back and fly their aircraft again and not have to start over.”

The lab makes any software updates when the PIMS come back to the AMRDEC so that the training systems are up-to-date with the latest software and training scenarios, and ready to go out to the next units when requested.

“Updating the simulator software to maintain concurrency with the real system is critical,” Bishop said. “We have several software upgrades per year, a minimum of two, and sometimes are required to do a few extra in between those. It depends on how the tactical system is advancing. We have to keep the trainers current with them.”

Jones said that early on in the current unmanned aircraft theaters of operation, the users had a lot of capability they wanted to add to the tactical systems. “They were making a lot of updates and adding capability quickly, so it was really important for us to keep pace with that because we needed to be able to train these new capabilities that were being provided to the Soldier,” Jones said.

The JSIL maintains a large database of training scenarios that are used to generate synthetic video scenes of what an unmanned aircraft sees when it’s flying several thousand feet high. The training systems use satellite imagery draped over elevation data to simulate the aircraft payload video showing buildings, roads and other visual cues that operators will see when flying an unmanned aircraft when deployed.

The training scenarios and terrain databases are frequently updated with feedback from Soldiers in the field to provide deploying Soldiers the most accurate data.

“When the units from the 101st (Airborne) at Fort Campbell came back,” Grady recalled, “they wanted to do some realistic training based on what they saw in the field. In a matter of a week, or less than a week, we turned around and developed models and scenarios based on real world events, and then we take that to the next unit getting ready to deploy and say, ‘Hey, by the way, at Fort Campbell, this is what to look for, this is what the guys saw.’”

The portable systems are also being used in collective training for manned/unmanned teaming. As part of that, the PIMs have been successfully tied-in to the Aviation Combined Arms Tactical Trainer, a system with reconfigurable cockpits allowing it to quickly transform to Apache, Kiowa, Black Hawk or Chinook.