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Common RPAS training: Remote, yet together

When seven EDA Member States established a Working Group in 2013 to improve collaboration and information-sharing in what was then a small and totally fragmented European Medium Altitude, Long Endurance, Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (MALE RPAS) domain, they instantly realised that cooperation on education and training offered the biggest potential for tangible results. Seven years on, there is a very tangible outcome: a joint RPAS Training Technology Demonstrator deployed to ten Member States.

This article has first been published in EDA's 'European Defence Matters' magazine N° 19 published in June 2020

The Working Group started with an in-depth analysis of the varying national approaches to RPAS crew training. It revealed that the paths into the RPAS aircrew pipeline varied significantly from country to country with disparate entry standards, methodologies and qualifications everywhere. Aligning the various approaches did not seem to offer any obvious immediate operational benefits to the fielded capability of the front line crews involved, a problem further compounded due to the remote and segregated nature of their daily tasks (often highly classified) which offered very few opportunities for multinational interaction. 

Against this backdrop, in late 2015, the Working Group reached a consensus that the only viable way forward was to construct a generic common MALE RPAS training platform that would be independent of bilateral obligation and not directly challenge national approaches. Instead, the common training platform would serve as a catalyst for slower convergence of training approaches, as a tool for improved interoperability as well as a framework for structured sharing of lessons, improved procedures and for general capacity development. The quest for improved interoperability was not unique to EDA, nor the Working Group itself, and, in early 2016, the European Air Group (EAG) was invited to contribute to the workstream as they had a strong interest in practical operator level improvements to interoperability, doctrine and procedures.  

RPAS Training Technology Demonstrator (RTTD)

The joint approach proved fruitful, and with funding support from EDA’s operational budget, a plan was developed to build a RPAS Training Technology Demonstrator (RTTD), the results of which would be shared across all EDA participating Member States.
Practically speaking, the RTTD project would equip each of the national training establishments with a desktop MALE RPAS simulator comprised of separate pilot, sensor operator and instructor consoles – all of them connected over a virtual private network that would enable both local and distributed training and the opportunity to test how interoperability could be improved through regular joint exercises and an annual face-to-face meeting of operators and instructors. 
EDA took care of the provision of the equipment and initial systems training, whereas the EAG focused on structured exercise collaboration and the tactical procedural dimensions to author a dedicated training manual through a parallel effort to be called the Interoperable MALE RPAS ISR Trainer (IMRIT) project. EDA rapidly progressed with the writing of a technical specification for the RTTD and opened a contract call in late 2016 for a four-year framework contract to provide the hardware, software and associated support services. The contract was awarded in February 2017 to DCI and DIGINEXT, a French consortium, who specialised in military simulation and had already developed a stand-alone system for the French Air Force.

First deployments to France, Italy, Spain

After several operator led design review and acceptance meetings, the first console was deployed in December 2017 at the French Air Force, Drone Centre of Excellence at Salon de Provence, followed quickly by deployments to the Italian Drone Centre in Amendola and the Spanish RPAS Training School, in Salamanca, Spain. The system immediately proved popular for local training and inter site communication, file transfer, debrief and replay functions were tested. 
The remaining deliveries to Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland and the United Kingdom (prior to Brexit) were conducted as soon as possible between March 2018 and February 2019. Issues were resolved as they came to light and Full Operational Capability was declared in March 2019. 

Desert, maritime and Middle East scenarios

Aside from the equipment deployment, the first MALE RPAS symposium was held at High Wycombe in the UK in November 2018 and the Member States and the EAG began work on designing three operational scenarios covering desert, maritime and Middle East based urban storyboards to form the framework for increasingly complex operational challenges.  
Each scenario was developed over three levels of difficulty: basic, advanced and advanced plus. Member States were each allocated a scenario in groups of three and four with the objective of refining the scenarios and further improving operational procedures. The EAG offered a vision of running a large collaborative personnel recovery exercise in late 2020 called VOLCANEX, but planning is currently held up due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Unique training network for MALE RPAS operators 

Results from the RTTD/IMRIT project will be made available to all EDA participating Member States in late 2021 with a view to reviewing the membership and scope of the Working Group and to perhaps continue the Demonstrator project as a longer lasting endeavour. 
Initial impressions of the joint project have highlighted several significant benefits including the value of mentoring in terms of capability development, language and cultural context as drivers for change, the value of low cost simulation employing commercial off-the-shelf gaming technologies and the very high degree of fidelity achievable using common locally shared environments and synchronisation tools. 
Although Covid-19 has enforced a regrettable operational pause to further system development, the demonstrator has already proved its worth enhancing both local and networked training but, perhaps more importantly, establishing an ongoing and trust based dialogue between European MALE RPAS operators. 
Training together in peacetime should be the normal approach to delivering success on deployed operations and in that respect the RTTD/IMRIT has already broken down several cultural barriers that in time will improve deployed operational capability.