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RPA Training Next transforms pipeline to competency-based construct

Air Education and Training Command is integrating modern technology and innovative strategies in an effort to transform how remotely-piloted aircraft pilots and sensor operators are developed through the RPA Training Next initiative. This effort moves the training to a competency-based concept where RPA students undergo a tailor-made program based on their capabilities and needs rather than an entire class following a rigid construct and transitioning through the entire pipeline together. (U.S. Air Force courtesy video)

An instructor pilot sits at a console with two monitors that depict cockpit instruments on the left screen and a map of Randolph Air Force Base on the right. Directly infront of him is a simulator cockpit occupied by a student pilot.

Maj. Tim, 558th Flying Training Squadron remotely piloted aircraft instrument qualification instructor pilot, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas oversees and teaches 2nd Lt. Ethan, 111th Attack Wing, RPA Student, Horsham Air National Guard Station, Pa., Oct. 23, 2019, in the Texan T-6 Simulator. The Air Force is transforming training through Remotely-Piloted Aircraft Training Next, a competency-based training concept where RPA students undergo a tailor-made program based on their capabilities and needs rather than an entire class following a rigid construct and transitioning through the entire pipeline together has been the long-term goal. (U.S Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Shelby Pruitt)

two Airmen sit in front of multiple monitors in dark room

Second Lt. Timothy, remotely piloted aircraft student pilot, and Airman 1st Class Anthony, RPA student sensor operator, operate an MQ-9 flight simulator, Dec. 10, 2019, at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. Air Education and Training Command is integrating modern technology and innovative strategies in an effort to transform how remotely piloted aircraft pilots and sensor operators are developed through the RPA Training Next initiative. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Quion Lowe)

MQ-9 Reaper sits on runway in front of hangar

The New York Air National Guard's 174th Attack Wing conducted their first MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft flying operation from Hancock Field Air National Guard Base and Syracuse Hancock International Airport, N.Y., Dec. 16, 2015. After completing undergraduate RPA pilot training, pilots on the MQ-9 Reaper track will head to Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., March Air Reserve Base, Calif., or Syracuse, N.Y. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Eric Miller)

HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. (AFNS) --

Air Education and Training Command is integrating modern technology and innovative strategies in an effort to transform how remotely piloted aircraft pilots and sensor operators are developed through the RPA Training Next initiative.

Current RPA training has focused on training similar to T-6 Texan II centered training in undergraduate pilot training, with RPA students focusing on learning the fundamentals of flying in a simulator and followed T-6 instrument training.

“Building off the T-6 UPT model has left little flexibility for the ever-changing needs of the Air Force.” said Maj. Adam Smith, RTN director.  “Technology is changing the way we live and learn and it has opened up many opportunities to improve training so we can develop the Airmen we need. Our program is a Learning Next initiative aimed at helping us examine how the command has historically trained Airmen, then explores alternatives to potentially modernize training practices.”

This effort to move to a competency-based training concept where RPA students undergo a tailor-made program based on their capabilities and needs rather than an entire class following a rigid construct and transitioning through the entire pipeline together has been the long-term goal, Smith said.

“RPA Training Next is an umbrella with a lot of other programs within it,” Smith said. “We are moving out of the experiment phase and connecting different methods of competency-based learning for the students to create a holistic RPA training-pipeline experience.”

The old version of RPA training included two phases of training.

“In the past, students went through RPA Instrument Qualification Course where they would fly a T-6 Texan II simulator and trained on instruments,” Smith said. “After that, students would go to the RPA Fundamentals Course, which was more of an academic course with a mission-focused simulator they would fly sorties in to get used to building operational missions and how to control an RPA.”

With the revamp, the RTN team is taking the two separate courses and blending them into one course; the RPA Course, with the first class beginning later this year at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, under the 12th Flying Training Wing.

“RPAC is a missionized course, which means there are more defined reasons for why students are accomplishing certain training objectives,” Smith said. “Students are not just flying a teardrop hold as the FAA might ask them to do, but there is a reason why they are holding – it’s to talk to a joint terminal attack controller on the ground, or to avoid a threat, or wait to get clearance.”

These types of mission elements are also being introduced earlier in the training so when students arrive at the RPA Formal Training Unit they already have a rudimentary concept of what a JTAC is and how to talk to the JTAC, Smith said.

“We believe by getting that exposure earlier in the training, students will show up more prepared at the FTU, allowing instructors to train students on higher-level skills,” Smith said.

After completing undergraduate training, pilots on the MQ-9 Reaper track will head to a formal training unit at Holloman, March Air Reserve Base, California, or Syracuse, New York. Students on the RQ-4 Global Hawk track will complete their formal training at Beale AFB, California.

“MQ-9 pilot or sensor operators will focus on the more Combat Air Force style skills, like employing munitions and working with JTACs,” Smith said. “The RQ-4 track will focus on the high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and transoceanic crossings, which are more in line with that platform’s mission sets.”

The entire training process is expected to last about a year, but there are breaks in training that can make the process longer, which is a part of what RTN is trying to fix through seamless transitions throughout all phases of training. 

The baselining of technology across all phases of training is also a major tenet of RTN.

“The idea is to keep the same levels of technology for RPA students across both undergraduate and formal training,” Smith said. “This allows the pipeline to have a seamless transition in all phases of training.”

As part of the technology initiative, the RTN team is more broadly incorporating artificial-intelligence capability initially tested by the Pilot Training Next team to build trust in AI principles early in an Airman’s career so the capability can be used throughout a pilot’s career.

“We are making changes to the AI in regards to how we train RPA pilots and sensor operators and then we will take the same AI software and embed that in with the MQ-9 Reaper simulator at the FTU,” Smith said. “The plan, once proven, is to export that software to the combat squadrons so they have access to the same AI instruction and other AI instructor aids in their simulators for continuation and mission qualification training.”

Smith also noted they have made modifications to the T-6 simulators to expose students to the large amounts of data coming into an RPA pilot that manned-aircraft pilots are not typically exposed to. Modifications such as chat functions that need to be watched and used to communicate with entities around the globe based on mission needs and tasking, as well as moving map displays.

“A big portion of RPA training is cross-check and task management,” Smith said. “We need to make sure the students have the task management capabilities, so we are left-loading that training earlier in the process so they have that data right off the bat and understand the information process right off the bat.”

There have also been T-6 simulator modifications made from the sensor operator perspective.

“We attached a targeting pod on the bottom on the T-6 simulator to allow us to have the sensor operator participate in the training, which has been a game-changer,” Smith said. “In our past training construct, the sensor operator only had about four days of training with their pilot in the undergraduate phase, which means when they have arrived at the formal training unit we have had to spend extra time to show them how to work together as an aircrew.”

Sensor operators are now getting earlier exposure to topics such as crew resource management skills for four weeks instead of just four days, Smith said.

RTN is quickly finishing the development phase and the outcomes from this program are poised to truly evolve how the RPA community has trained.

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