By R. KURT BARNHART, Ph.D., CFII-MEI, A&P/IA
For those pilots who haven’t noticed it, there is an emerging trend in aviation that is sure to impact most Americans — whether they know it or not — and most assuredly will impact the general aviation community.
The Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), as it is known in the industry, is a technology developed primarily to support military operations and help keep humans out of harm’s way in the operational theater. Now there is a growing call for this technology to be used at home for similar purposes. Although pilotless aircraft have been around for decades, their use has been restricted primarily to restricted airspace as they served as aerial targets or carried airborne cameras. Now, whether in support of law enforcement, firefighting, or for routine aerial surveillance, these vehicles are being eyed as an efficient way to accomplish many of the same tasks as manned aircraft, while keeping humans away from the dull, dangerous, or dirty missions (the 3 Ds or realms of potential UAS mission suitability), which means they will need to be safely integrated into our National Airspace System (NAS) in the coming months and years. Not limited to aerial use, unmanned vehicles are making their debut in virtually all modes of transportation, including on the ground (Unmanned Ground Vehicles-UGVs), on the water (Unmanned Surface Vessels-USVs), or under the water (Unmanned Underwater Vessels-UUVs) for many of the same reasons.
For many pilots, the obvious concern centers around the anticipated hazards of sharing the skies with “flying robots,” so to speak. It is important to note that the word “unmanned” is really not the best choice to describe how these systems function. There is already a move afoot to a more appropriate term, such as the word “drone,” which is already accepted in much of the English speaking world.
On average, there are more people directly involved in the operation of UAS than are typically involved with almost any general aviation flight.
Even the smallest fully-automated UAS designed for simple tasks will have an Air Vehicle Operator (AVO), whose job it is to manage the flight path according to the mission requirements through the Ground Station (GS), communicate with ATC, and intervene manually, if necessary. There is also a Mission Payload Operator (MPO), whose job it is to collect and manage the mission data through onboard sensors, whether they be cameras, fine particle sensors, or any of a host of other available sensors and devices as dictated by the mission requirements. There may also be a separate person or persons for Launch and Recovery Operations (LRO) of the Air Vehicle (AV), who may also have the secondary function as serving as ground observers whose job is to maintain visual contact with the AV and be vigilant for other traffic which is reported to the AVO.
Pilots and passengers can rest assured that the FAA is proceeding out of an abundance of caution when it comes to integrating these vehicles into the NAS and they are working hard to ensure that the safety and integrity of that system will not be compromised as that happens. One of the key technological hurdles to full integration is the ability for an air vehicle to independently detect, sense, and avoid (DSA) other aircraft autonomously. Visual detection systems are already available which can spot an aircraft long before a human could, but integrating this detection into a seamless system which can make a viable threat assessment and take appropriate evasive action is still a work in progress.
As of now, with the exception of one or two large-scale military UAS (such as the Global Hawk), routine UAS operations in civilian airspace is limited by the FAA to areas as defined in a Certificate of Authorization (COA). A certificate of authorization is issued to a specific operator, for a specific AV, over a specific geographic location where the collision hazard has been well-mitigated. This COA is only issued after a rigorous evaluation and contains specific instructions for notifying the flying community of intended operations (by NOTAM) and closely coordinating those operations with ATC.
One of the main remaining concerns for a general aviation pilot might still be the potential threat created when a fully autonomous UAS loses its communication link with the Ground Station or has a software glitch causing it to go wayward. Although official policies and procedures are still being established, each AV has a redundant lost link protocol which will safely bring it back down to earth or cause it to hover/orbit away from populated areas until communication can be re-established or the vehicle runs out of fuel. In this case the AVO would notify ATC, which will then alert all pilots to the situation.
It can be said that every effort is being taken to ensure the safety of the flying public in the event things don’t go as planned. It should be noted that the potential for a collision with a manned aircraft is very small but the potential life-saving benefits of these vehicles are great — so any risk of UAS operations must be appropriately weighed against those benefits.
If (as it usually is) the military’s use of this new technology is any indicator of future civilian use, we are truly in for an aviation revolution in the coming decades. UAS technology and AV platforms are currently proliferating at a tremendous rate and this trend shows no sign of stopping. The U.S. Air Force already trains more operators/pilots of unmanned aircraft than manned aircraft and DOD R&D dollars for UAS already outpaces the level for manned aircraft. I’m definitely not suggesting that the need for pilots will ever dry up or that we’ll all soon be flying in unmanned aircraft, but it is clear that these systems will have a major impact on the future of our air transportation system…the extent to which has yet to be determined.
Barnhart is executive director of the Applied Aviation Research Center located at Kansas State University’s Salina campus. Its flagship program is the Unmanned Aerial Systems Program. This collegiate initiative, in partnership with Flint Hills Solutions of Andover, Kan., is one of the first of its kind in higher education to address UAS from an operational perspective and stems from two industry-leading projects: a) UAS technology evaluation/integration and b) the Advanced Avionics Miniaturization Program. Both programs are aimed at creative UAS solutions to current challenges and making those solutions available to those who need access to UAS capability. For more information: Salina.K-State.edu.