By MATTHEW ZUCCARO
Haven’t you heard? Pilots are no longer required, at least not on board the aircraft. Welcome to the world of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
No pilots? Is nothing sacred anymore? I remember my first flights as pilot in command in both a helicopter and an airplane. It was me and the aircraft against the laws of nature. I was not overseeing flight management systems — I strapped on the aircraft, and it became part of me.
In the years since, pilots have been gradually stripped of their direct influence over their aircraft. Synthetic control pressures, fly by wire, and the fully integrated autopilot have all made their way into the cockpit.
Our pilot in command duties are to be performed in front of a screen, from some remote location on the ground. This sounds more like playing video games, except you are actually controlling an aviation vehicle, in real time, in real airspace with other aviation assets.
Some think removing pilots is a good thing. After all, when something goes wrong with a flight, isn’t the problem usually the pilot? I do not subscribe to this thinking.
I do believe, however, that UAVs are here to stay. They are coming to your airspace soon, if they’re not there not already.
The good news is UAVs can safely operate alongside us. Admittedly, creating an airspace that can be safely shared will require the full cooperation of all stakeholders: Manned aircraft operators, UAV operators, air traffic control, regulators, and associations such as the Helicopter Association International (HAI) and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). When it comes to safety integrating UAVs into the National Airspace, our industry needs to be part of the solution.
To create a safe, efficient operating environment for all airspace users, regulators and industry must develop and implement reasonable, yet effective, regulations and certification requirements for UAVs, operators, pilots, and training programs, along with the proper airspace surveillance and communications capabilities.
The safe integration of UAVs into the National Airspace is even more important to the helicopter and general aviation industry. UAV operations are mostly conducted at lower altitudes, outside the normal airspace environment and ground infrastructure. This is, of course, where helicopters can be found.
The safety issue is complicated by the distinction between commercial and recreational use of UAVs. The current thinking among legislators, regulators, and courts is that regulation of commercial UAV operations is anticipated and needed; it is just a matter of time. But what about the personal use of unmanned vehicles?
Considering the prolific growth of recreational UAV use, the helicopter industry, more than any other aviation segment, could face potential safety concerns. Recreation UAVs are an aviation segment that is relatively unregulated. Again, a cooperative effort by the involved parties is necessary to ensure safety.
In the long term, however, I believe UAV operations, both recreational and commercial, have the potential to benefit the helicopter industry in different ways. Historically, the use of recreational aircraft models has promoted a positive image for general aviation and even assisted in supplying the next generation of professionals to our industry.
When it comes to the commercial UAV operations, I think that we in the helicopter industry need to stop complaining about our new neighbors. Instead, let’s realize how we stand to benefit from the growth of this new aviation segment.
After all, we know a lot about carrying out low-altitude, mission-oriented operations in environments outside of most aviation infrastructure. Commercial helicopter operators who conduct UAV operations as an extension of their existing helicopter activity can expand their mission profile, delivering more services to a larger customer base at a wider range of costs.
With the advent of UAVs, helicopter operators are looking at opportunities for new technology, additional operating capabilities, and expanded markets. The smart thinking says, get involved now.
If the thought of no pilot in the cockpit really gets to you, just remember there is a pilot: They just happen to be on the ground. If the lack of a pilot on board still bothers you, paste a pilot’s picture on the UAV.
What are your thoughts? Let me know via e-mail: email@example.com.
As always, have a safe flight and fly neighborly.