How do you train soldiers for military and aviation operations without putting them, or civilians, at risk? Well, Close Air Solutions, a startup based at the Bristol and Bath Science Park, will let you experience the pressures of a combat situation from the comfort of an office chair with its impressive immersive flying and military training simulations.
“An hour in our simulator costs about £500 compared with an hour flying a Typhoon that costs close to £100,000”
We caught up with Tom Ball, cofounder of Close Air Solutions, to find out more about the company, how the tech has been received and just how well simulation training can prepare people for real-life conflict situations.
Founders Tom and Mike Squires are both ex-RAF military fast jet pilot instructors. “I was responsible for the integration of existing simulators,” explains Tom, “and I spotted that the existing sims had some flaws that did not allow us to train as well as we could. Due to this, I designed and built a new simulator that allowed us to train in more operational scenario-based ways. I received commendation in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for this. Mike and I recognised that all the international Joint Fires Schools had various problems that we felt we could solve for them and as such the idea for Close Air Solutions was conceived.”
“There is no hiding in the debrief; everything comes out!”
Apart from the obvious ‘no-one gets hurt’ factor of the simulations, we asked Tom what were the other advantages of simulator training. “For training in defence, simulation offers significant advantages in cost savings and utility,” he explains. “An hour in our simulator costs about £500 compared with an hour flying a Typhoon that costs close to £100,000. To train the guys on the ground you need aircraft, preferably lots of them. Due to asset availability and peace-time training restrictions, it can be very difficult to get a realistic number of air and fires assets operating in the way that they would on war operations.
“In a simulator we can saturate the airspace with aircraft and add to that artillery and mortars all flying through the airspace, all requiring detailed coordination. Better still we can get trainees to make fatal mistakes (crash aircraft etc) and learn from them. One of the best bits of the training is the After Action Review – whereby we can playback from any aspect from any part of the simulation, including the radio transmissions, this really enables the lessons to be understood and learned in slow time after the training event. There is no hiding in the debrief; everything comes out!”
“People literally lose themselves in the simulation. They lose their inhibitions, their sense of time, the outside world does not exist for them”
The response to the simulators Close Air Solutions has created has been really pleasing for Tom. “It’s been tremendously positive,” he tells us. “We delivered a simulator to the UK MOD in under 4 months, and it received the highest accreditation to replace live missions as part of UK national training. In the past, big defence prime contracts can often be measured in years, 4 months is almost unheard of.
“We took our simulator (and more importantly our expert role players and facilitators) to an international military training exercise in the Czech Republic last year. The feedback was amazing; people were literally lost in the simulation. They lost their inhibitions, lost their sense of time, the outside world did not exist for them, only the mission that they were playing. They were in what is known as the psychological state of flow. This is when maximum training transfer occurs, when the trainee is fully immersed in the training.”
Close Air Solutions training tech: Put yourself in a realistic
combat zone with none of the dangers
So what’s next for Close Air Solutions? “We are working to convince potential customers that buying expensive simulator equipment will not solve their training problems alone. Only by good training needs analysis, careful scenario design, and expert facilitation can you achieve the best results. We are proposing simulation training as a service on a pay-as-you go basis. We think this offers significant benefits to customers beyond just money saving. Customers don’t have to worry about the burdens of training staff to operate the sim, getting expertise to design the scenarios, maintaining the equipment, upgrades and so on – We handle all of that for them, they just use it when they need it.”
Tom is open to collaborating with other people and organisations. He tells us: “We have held discussions with Bath University Computer Science department as to how we might work together. We employ an MSc Computer Science intern on her year in industry – we have been very impressed with her, she has bought new capabilities to the business.”
Tom is also very impressed with the Bristol and Bath Science Park (BBSP) where the company is based: “It is great from our point of view, a number of our subcontractors and potential collaborators work here, you can’t beat the face to face relationship. Also it is a great place to bring people for meetings, a truly impressive venue. I personally think the coffee here is the best in town.”
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We wondered if any other tech companies impress Tom in the South West. He replies, “We are very impressed by Cubik Innovation – They are a very proactive small quantity electronic design and manufacturing company here at BBSP that have been instrumental in helping us develop our product line of form fit function simulated military equipment for use in simulators.”
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