Synthetic environments: a new training field11 July 2016
As the military’s remit broadens and threats become more unconventional, training systems have had to evolve to keep up. Elly Earls meets Steve Brittan, CEO of the UK Defence Solutions Centre, to find out how synthetic environments are playing a more important role in preparing new recruits for real-world operations.
The range of activities being undertaken by the UK armed forces today is more diverse than it ever has been, covering everything from warfighting to peacekeeping as well as counterterrorism. Within this context, the military is also increasingly being faced by enemies fighting asymmetrical wars using unconventional tactics. As such, defence training has had to evolve, becoming flexible and responsive enough to ensure the modern soldier is fully equipped to deal with any scenario they might come up against.
Meanwhile, affordability is of heightened importance for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the technology around simulation training has advanced rapidly, largely thanks to innovations in industries outside defence. It’s hardly surprising, then, that more training is taking place in synthetic environments.
“As synthetic-environment technologies and simulation technologies have gotten better, it’s increasingly possible to do a larger amount of training in a simulator,” confirms Steve Brittan, CEO of the UK Defence Solutions Centre (UK DSC), a new organisation jointly funded by the UK Government and industry, and born of the Defence Growth Partnership (DGP), which was built to take a strategic view of the key market drivers that will shape the future of the international defence industry and reflect those back into the UK.
“The beauty of the synthetic environment is that you have fewer limitations on the range of scenarios you can go and experiment with, and the way you can build a scenario is getting more flexible. So, for example, if you were training over a very short period of time as a trainee pilot, you could experience a vast range of scenarios, which, in the real world, would be much harder to do.”
The cost savings associated with more simulation and less real-world training are also significant, partly because organisations can target the use of assets like aircraft more carefully. “In the past, such assets would be used for the entire training life cycle, but now we can reserve real-world operation for those things that are harder to simulate,” Brittan explains. “You can then get better value out of the real-world activities.”
More simulation also means pilots can move through training more quickly. “In the RAF, which is looking at this issue at the moment, a lot of the initial training is now done with simulators rather than aircraft; it’s a mixture now,” Brittan notes. “The idea is to shorten the overall life cycle of training a pilot.”
Big MoD investments in simulation
The UK MoD has already invested significantly in contracts that incorporate simulation. For example, in February 2016, a £1.1-billion contract was placed with Ascent Flight Training to design, deliver and manage a new Fixed Wing flying training system for aircrew across the RAF, Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and the Army Air Corps. On top of providing the MoD with modern training aircraft, Ascent will also deliver up-to-date ground-based training devices such as simulators and classroom learning.
As Air Marshal Sir Baz North, the senior responsible owner for the UK Military Flying Training System (UK MFTS) – which will train 230 students a year and provide roughly 200 jobs across the UK– said when the contract was awarded, “The UK MFTS Fixed Wing contract provides enhanced synthetic and live flying training for the UK’s military aircrew out to 2033. The service employs modern, adaptable and sustainable systems that exploit the advantages of the simulated environment to prepare our aircrew to meet the challenges of future combat operations.”
This investment was on top of a 2015 £80-million investment in new helicopter simulator equipment to help train the RAF and Royal Navy helicopter pilots, and rear crews of the future. Divided into a £51-million contract with Lockheed Martin UK and a £29-million contract with AgustaWestland, the equipment will provide a realistic representation of the operating environments the crews will fly in, and will enable them to practice manoeuvres and procedures safely and repeatedly to enhance their learning.
“Simulation is a solution that, when blended with live flying events, provides optimum individual and team-level training,” said Air Vice-Marshal Julian Young, director of helicopters at the MoD’s Defence Equipment and Support organisation last year. “Although it can never replace live training fully, being able to create a wide variety of training scenarios and operating settings can provide a more challenging, safer and controllable environment to help our forces practice in a way that is essential for effective mission preparation.”
Other recent investments in simulation solutions include a £10.2-million contract awarded to Meggitt in 2015 to upgrade British Army small arms training systems known as dismounted close combat trainers (DCCTs), and a £33-million simulation contract awarded to QinetiQ in 2014.
The latter will see QinetiQ continue to provide the Distributed Synthetic Air Land Training 2 programme it had been providing to the MoD for the five years previous to the new contract win, and will include exercises such as Steel Dragon, which mimics a realistic high-threat environment to which trainees must respond with appropriate tactics, techniques and procedures.
While increased use of simulation offers clear benefits to the MoD, there are still a number of challenges to overcome before it can be used to its optimum potential. One challenge currently being addressed is how advanced simulation systems can be integrated with older legacy equipment.
“As with all armed forces, we have a mixture of brand-new kits and much older kits, and in many cases, the simulation technology for the latter is much less advanced,” Brittan says. “So what we’re working on is how you can easily plug and play so that you can use that equipment as well. [We’re looking at] building the interfaces to allow that to work effectively, but it’s not straightforward.”
Enabling simulation solutions to work across coalitions is another challenge being faced by various militaries. ‘If the UK is working with other militaries, how do you simulate that and enable simulation solutions to work with other countries’ facilities?’ is a key question defence industry stakeholders are trying to answer.
Looking further to the future as autonomous operations become more commonplace, new challenges concerning the blending of simulation, synthetic environments, real-world operations and training will inevitably arise too. “When you get into the space of autonomous air systems like drones or UAVs, it’s a mixture of human operation and machine operation, and often, the human will be operating through a virtual environment,” Brittan explains.
“For example, the people who control the assets the UK uses in Syria and Iraq are based in the UK, yet they’re in fully immersive environments. Another area we’re looking at is how you might have assets like fighter aircraft that are manned but the pilots can also control unmanned assets alongside them. This is where the blurring of boundaries between real-world operations, synthetic operations and training becomes interesting. They’re all part of the continuum we’re looking at.”
Specific initiatives that are already underway to address these challenges include the DGP’s £10-million Innovation Challenge, which was launched in March 2015 to encourage the development of innovative defence products including synthetic training systems. The first challenge generated a large number of high-quality proposals from a range of innovative UK companies, resulting in the award of 23 new contracts, including one to Inzpire, an SME looking at a synthetic training environment that provides real-time and after-action graphic review.
Meanwhile, the DGP working group on operational training integrating synthetics (OTIS) is also working on bringing a UK-wide view of synthetic training to operational effect, which could not only prove invaluable for the UK military but could also be adapted to specific national needs. Plus, a new £10-million jointly funded project between government and industry christened the Dual Use Technology Exploitation (DUTE) innovation cluster is working to link UK manufacturers, particularly SMEs, from the civil and defence industries, with the goal of drawing on the best innovations from both sectors.
“We’re looking at how we can access developments in other parts of the market, not just the defence world,” explains Brittan. “There’s a huge amount of investment in immersive environments, artificial reality and authentic reality, and so on. Those all have a lot to offer to defence.”
As technology continues to advance and the range of threats to the UK military further broaden, simulation and synthetic environment training are only set to become a bigger part of the training systems of the future, increasingly in the context of autonomous operations. As Brittan concludes, this will prove a real win for everyone involved, “Airmen and soldiers will be trained more quickly, we’ll have greater volumes going through facilities, and they will be kept as far away from harm as possible.”