In the world, there are roughly 20 machines that can accurately simulate what it's like to fly a Predator drone. All of them, save for one, is owned by or leased out to the US military to train those who will carry out targeted strikes or surveillance in the Middle East.
But the solitary one owned and operated by civilians is being used by researchers at the University of North Dakota to see how, exactly, the world's most infamous drone might be able to be used here in the United States.
WE HOPE TO BE ABLE TO TAKE ALL OF THIS AND SOMEHOW MOVE IT INTO A COMMERCIAL OR CIVILIAN REALM
Predator drones over the United States would be nothing new—the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection both fly unarmed versions of the drone over the country, and NASA has had one since 2006.
Fittingly, a Predator has even been used, once, to help arrest someone a couple hours west of UND. The idea behind the university's program is that, someday, the Predator's use in the United States might become more widespread.
"We're looking into the non-military, government, public use, and, maybe, commercial and civilian use of this technology," John Bridewell, a University of North Dakota professor overseeing the program, told me last week.
Since 2012, the university has been using the Predator Mission Aircrew Training System, the most faithful simulator made by the Predator's manufacturer, General Atomics, to research both new ways of training Predator pilots and new ways of using the Predator in the United States.
According to General Atomics, "with PMATS, the level of realism between simulated exercises and real-world operations is virtually transparent."
HOW CAN WE TAKE THIS AND MAKE IT FUN?
Last week, I visited the university to learn more about its training programs. (Full disclosure: the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce wanted me to see the state's newly operational drone test site so badly that it paid for my travel from NYC.) Unfortunately, access to the PMATS system is, as you might expect, highly restricted. It's held in a secure facility on the Grand Forks Air Force Base (though it's owned and operated by the university), and I was unable to see it in action (the photo you see above is the only press photo cleared for release). Even so, talking to the people working on the project was enlightening.
The university's use of PMATS is twofold: First, the university is working in conjunction with the Air Force Research Laboratory to reform how military pilots are trained and, secondly, it's trying to figure out whether or not the Predator has a second life outside of its use as a targeted killing machine in the Middle East.
Bridewell says that he and graduate students at the university (only American citizens are allowed to use or even see it, after a security-clearance process) have been working on new ways of training Predator pilots, including making the training more game-like. In January, the first class of 32 students began training on the device. Bridewell has also tried to simulate the simulator experience on standard computers, to make it more accessible.
"We're working with pilots and sensor operators, which is what the Air Force has had difficulty training—we looked at it and thought, how can we take this and make it fun?" he told me. "We took ideas from gaming—we've got a built in tutorial, we have exercises, we've turned it into a game where you flash up something and a clock counts down to see if they can find it within a certain amount of time."
On what the commercial or civilian use of Predators might be, the university is more guarded. Bridewell told me he isn't sure whether there will ever be a commercial entity that's allowed to own (or that would want to own) a Predator, but those are the questions he's trying to answer.
"We hope to be able to take all of this and somehow move it into a commercial or civilian realm," he said.
In a sense, that's already happened: Customs and Border Protection is a civilian agency, and it regularly flies the drones near the border (and it was a CBP drone that helped local police in Grand Forks arrest a man in 2011). For a while, CBP agents trained on the university's simulator, according to Trevor Woods, a lead drone piloting instructor at the university.
A CBP agent in North Dakota told me that the agency "assists every state, local, or federal agency" that asks for Predator support and that it flies drones very regularly within US borders.
There is, obviously, a lot of fear associated with the use of Predators, in particular, within the United States. If their use is going to become more common, it's going to be because of research carried out at the university.
"We're trying to segue this research into a broad, introductory curriculum," Woods said. "We'll be able to answer [the question of] 'What do you need to do if you're a commercial pilot and want to become a UAS pilot?"