"Faux Predator" flies to train unmanned aircraft pilots

Cessan can mimic the Air Force’s MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft.

Prdator Ball
While the military is struggling to keep up the pace of unmanned aircraft deployments, the Civil Air Patrol has stepped up to the plate to help with a manned Cessna that contains technology to make it act like a sophisticated drone.  A "Surrogate Predator" is what the outfit calls it. 

The technology making this possible is a Wescam MX-15 surveillance camera ball or Predator Ball, and associated hardware mounted under the left wing of a CAP Cessna 182 that lets the plane mimic the Air Force's MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft, the CAP said in a release. 

With the Predator ball in place, the CAP plane-turned-Surrogate Predator has the capability of locking onto a target and tracking it, said CAP-USAir Force Commander Col. Bill Ward.  The ultimate goal is to broadcast streaming video to give soldiers and Marines a real-time view of what is going on. 

The Air Force will use the Surrogate Predator to fill a critical training gap in support of Army and Marine forces as they prepare for deployment. "Due to the Air Force maximum surge effort to provide more MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper support to ground units in [the Arabian Gulf region], there are no Predator or Reaper forces available to support pre-deployment exercises," said Maj. Matt Martin, chief of the Predator/Reaper Ops Branch of Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base, Va. "The Surrogate Predator is the solution."

Such training inadequacies are certain to grow, observers say, especially as the unmanned flying force grows.  Earlier this year the Air Force said it has 85% of its unmanned air force deployed in Southwest Asia operations and 15% stateside to train pilots and for operational test and development. The Air Force is doing all it can to speed up the UAS pilot training process, Air Force officials stated.

Published reports note that the Air Force wants to produce 300 unmanned aerial vehicle pilots over the next three years because they're badly needed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The service has 27 unmanned aircraft flying over Iraq and Afghanistan at any time, but it wants to almost double those patrols by 2012.

Additionally the use of unmanned aircraft is exploding in the military and commercial communities. Federal agencies such as the DHS, the Department of Commerce, and NASA alone use unmanned planes in many areas, such as border security, weather research, and forest fire monitoring, so training opportunities abound.

As for the current program, the Air Force's Air Combat Command has $2.5 million for the Surrogate Predator Program and the CAP will provide the needed training with its dedicated citizen volunteers at a fraction of the cost of the private contractor currently providing the training.

CAP pilots in the program have prior military experience, which is a requirement. The pilots and their aircrews - a unit of 18 CAP volunteers - will be needed in the program's initial stages. Many more CAP volunteers will be involved as the program expands in the coming months. The ACC mission training will qualify them to provide air interdiction, close air support and intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance support to ground forces. After a formal certification, these crews will be able to fly realistic Surrogate Predator missions. ACC will closely monitor the program and will use Air Force operators with real-world Predator or Reaper experience to assist, the CAP stated.

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