Projected onto a screen in a conference room in Medicine Hat, a video shows unmanned fast attack craft skimming across the water near Esquimalt. The video is an excerpt from a Discovery Channel feature on the first large-scale “swarmex” demonstration which simulated the threat of 16 fast in-shore attack craft. Spencer Fraser, president and general manager of Meggitt Training Systems Canada, is understandably proud of the 2010 accomplishment, which showcased the company’s Hammerhead target boats controlled on a single radio frequency. The Hammerheads, smaller versions of Meggitt’s larger Barracuda naval target, replicate a threat all too common for navies operating in contested littorals via a universal target control station.

As one of the pioneers in simulated training, Meggitt Training Systems Canada has been providing unmanned targets to air forces, armies and navies for decades. Its systems have been key to joint and multinational exercises such Trident Fury and the Canadian army’s Potent Knight Air Defence. One of its Vindicator II unmanned aerial vehicles was retired to the Canadian War Museum in 2010. And because of its ability to attract international customers for its land, sea and air systems, Meggit garnered an export award of distinction from the Alberta Chamber of Commerce.

Fraser, a former naval officer with extensive experience in weapons performance measurement and the use of drones for test and evaluation, spoke with Vanguard about the unmanned training systems sector.

Canada’s pedigree in unmanned systems, especially training systems, might surprise people.

If you look at Canada’s history, we have been world leaders since the beginning. Few are probably aware that the CL289 is Canada’s largest military export ever. It was a Canada-West Germany-France high speed drone that was just decommissioned last year. The Germans flew up to 70-80 percent of the reconnaissance missions in Kosovo in 1999. It flew 400 knots, on the deck, with precise cameras. It wasn’t real-time but it was leading edge. And our Vindicator II is kind of the Beaver aircraft of its time. It’s been sold to 12 countries, hundreds have been produced, and it’s as relevant today as when it first came out because it replicates a whole multitude of exigent threats that are facing armed forces.

This has required a strong relationship with the R&D community, has it not? What role as technology transfer from Defence Research and Development Canada played?

The reason we are in Medicine Hat is because of DRDC Suffield. Look at the number of companies that are DRDC spinoffs – L-3 WESCAM, CAE. I would suggest there is not a single player in Canada that has not benefited in some way from DRDC. Canadians like to beat up on the federal government but we have had fantastic support. In fact, as a nationalist, I would ask many companies: “Where did you receive your seed funding?”

Is that support permitting Canadian companies to compete internationally in the unmanned systems market?

I don’t think anyone can doubt that most of the companies are producing equipment and selling it overseas, as opposed to just buying foreign equipment and operating it in Canada. Canada’s got to ask itself which part of that equation it wants to focus on. Do you want to have a Bombardier in your midst or do you want to have a WestJet? There are benefits to each and I’m not being negative to one or the other. That’s a discussion for the government. But it has got to be a bit more focused. We purport to be the fifth largest aerospace economy in the world yet we don’t have a national program for unmanned vehicles.

At Meggitt, we’ve taken a bit of the Own the Podium mentality from the Olympics and said, wait a minute, we are the best, so why don’t we tell it. We have focused on a niche area where we are a world leader – we’ve got North American, U.K., Australian and Pacific Rim customers ¬– and we’ve done very well, but it’s not without its challenges.”

The unmanned market has exploded in recent years. How do customers perceive it? Is it trusted?

I believe so. But there are a lot of charlatans out there. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard a company say it is the only one in Canada doing something, but when you ask how many actual flights they’ve completed, they’ll say, “we’ve done three.” Well, we’re doing 30-40 flights a day at Suffield. There is a big difference between number of flights versus the number of hours flying. Because the hard part is launching and recovering and for that you need thousands of flights.

What key capabilities are customers seeking with these systems?

Reliability. And with reliability comes cost. The notion that these are cheap and cheerful – no, there is an asymmetry in the cost of unmanned vehicles. Payloads far exceed the costs of the platforms. And since there is no breakthrough sensor on unmanned vehicles that doesn’t exist on fixed wing, I would suggest another is persistence. What you are seeing is the trend away from tactical UAVs to MALE (medium altitude, high endurance) UAVs.

Are you taking solutions to them or are they coming to you with requests? Who is driving the need for innovation?

A bit of both. We do performance measurement of weapons systems and counter force simulation. If there is a threat out there that we can emulate, we’ll take that to customers. If you were to break up unmanned vehicles for the early adopters, which is primarily military, you’ve got weaponized systems, decoys – no one talks about them but there is a huge business – surveillance systems, and then targets. And then, of course, there’s training. Canada’s got some niche capabilities in most of these and there is a lot of innovation out there. Meggitt has 250 subcontractors in Canada, from Sidney, Nova Scotia to B.C., who provide us with everything from software to painting and propellers.

Do you see the Arctic as significant market for unmanned systems?

There is potential, but unmanned is just part of a solution. What is the effect you are trying to achieve? What would I do with respect to Russia? Well, that’s one thing. What would I do with respect to Greenland? Well, that’s another. Ultimately, you need a layered approach, so your most effective solution begins with a satellite, and then perhaps manned or automatically piloted systems.

You clearly have a role in helping the Canadian navy prepare for what it has termed the “contested littorals.” What sort of complex training solutions do they require?

They are one of our bigger supporters. We have two initiatives going on with the navy that will probably mature in the next year that no one in the world is looking at. I can’t say more than that at the moment.

An interview with Spencer Fraser.