The Drones Are Coming: Who Will Fly Them?


Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are scheduled for integration into the national airspace system (NAS) in 2015, spurring job growth and a forecast economic impact of $13.6 billion by 2019. But while the growing industry will be adding to the overall workforce, the segment might also be changing the employment landscape for people seeking professional pilot positions. The new segment will need pilots, but what kind of pilots, and where will they come from? Let’s take a look.

First, the role of an UAS pilot may be significantly different from that of traditional pilots flying today. There is even some evidence that a person’s experience functioning as a traditional pilot may actually impair some areas of their performance, or learning, as a drone pilot. But some industry observers believe it’s most likely that the FAA will require drone operators to have experience in the cockpit demonstrated in the form of a commercial and instrument flight certificate before they are allowed to operate a drone in the NAS. There are a multiple, sometimes conflicting factors to consider. Here are a few…

$27 Million Per Day

A study performed by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International forecasts that during the first decade following integration of UAS within the NAS, more than 100,000 new jobs will be created. And, by that forecast, the total economic impact of the segment, which includes new manufacturing, maintenance, operation, sales, support and other positions, could reach $82 billion by 2025. But the association is not an independent source. The industry it represents could derive benefits if those figures persuade the FAA and legislators to swiftly create whatever regulatory structure it deems appropriate to oversee widespread introduction of unmanned aerial operations in the NAS. Toward that end, the numbers are persuasive. According to the study “every year that integration is delayed, the United States loses more than $10 billion in potential impact.” The figure translates to more than $27 million per day.

That motivation is there and legislative pressure already exists in the form of the 2015 deadline — the drones are coming. And that belief is mirrored in the preparations that educational institutions are undertaking. Educators like those at the University of North Dakota (UND) have already developed programs to train UAS pilots. UND in particular has made drone-related programs available to students since 2009. It’s also had the support of the state. In fact the University, with the state’s help, has gone as far as to acquire for its school the only Predator Mission Aircrew Training System in use outside of the military.

UND’s Center for UAS Research, Education and Training is headed by its director, Brig. Gen. Alan Palmer. Palmer led a team of 10 appointed by the governor of North Dakota seeking to have an area of the state designated as a national drone test site. If granted, that would put North Dakota at the head of the class for drone development in the U.S..

Building A Better (Drone) Pilot

Palmer discussed the special requirements of drone pilots and shared his opinion about how the segment may develop. He was clear that in his opinion that “the FAA is not going to allow someone to fly a UAS in the NAS if that person is not a pilot.” But he also noted there will be some exceptions. For example, operation of smaller vehicles that can perform their roles safely and efficiently below 400 feet will likely remain clear of the requirement for FAA certification. However, for flight above 18,000 feet, or in IMC, in-cockpit pilots need an instrument rating. Palmer expects that to hold true for UAS operators as well. UND’s UAS programs reflect that belief and include commercial and instrument ratings for pilots advancing through their studies. And the programs are expanding.

In 2009, the first year UND accepted students to its UAS program, five were enrolled. “Today,” says Palmer, “there are about 120 majors in the program.” Palmer says UND has invested roughly $22 million to research UAS related areas and is currently involved in a $5.5 million program looking at Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drone operations. The University’s programs, its curriculum and use of training devices are in constant evolution as it attempts to tailor UAS training that meets the evolving structure and market demands of UAS operations in the most efficient way possible. For now, that means maximizing allowed simulator training time as students progress through flight school. According to Palmer, the approach keeps costs down while the sim environment is more comparable to actual UAS operations.

Core Competencies

In Palmer’s experience, which includes 38 years with the military and National Guard, as well as familiarity with Predator drone operations, pilots with prior flight experience effectively transfer good situational awareness and multitasking skills from the cockpit to the drone operations environment. However, in practice, effective transfer of training may be more case specific depending on the drone. Many unmanned aerial vehicles, are not flown so much as they are commanded and systems used to control unmanned vehicles have not been standardized across platforms.

In other words, to control some drones, the user interface revolves more around menu selections, dedicated knobs and the selection of preprogrammed routes. The pilot environment in this case is not similar to an aircraft cockpit. This and other factors has may have an effect on transfer of training and skills from the cockpit to the UAS environment. A 2004 report by the FAA has shown that in some cases pilots with real flight experience were more prone to operational errors than those without flight experience. Some vehicles, like Predator drones, present a user interface more consistent with the traditional pilot experience. In Palmer’s experience, in-cockpit pilots transitioned well to Predators.

If Palmer is correct in his prediction that the FAA will require drone pilots to also hold be certificated commercial and instrument pilots, then candidates will need actual time in real aircraft, whether or not the skills learned there initially aid or complicate their UAS training. But there could be exceptions, too. Today, Palmer says that some drones are operated by the military with one pilot performing takeoff and landing while another controls the aircraft as it performs its mission. And the most advanced drones are capable of taking off, flying a mission and landing without real-time intervention from a human pilot. But Palmer believes it likely that there will always be a human in the loop and he expects the FAA will hold drone pilots to similar standards as their in-cockpit counterparts.

The Work Environment

Drone operations vary widely not only by the mission they perform but also by the system and vehicle used. For example, Palmer told us of 15 UND graduates who have moved on to work as private contractors for the military. In those cases, the pilots are responsible only for taking off and landing the vehicles. Military personnel are required to be in operation of the vehicle throughout those portions of the mission that may involve weapon deployment. It is conceivable that some commercial operations may be performed in a similar fashion. UND aims to provide its graduates with the skill set to perform both roles.

We asked Palmer to imagine and describe a typical work scenario for a commercial UAS operator. He outlined for us a research project for the DOT that would acquire information regarding road use, planning, and maintenance. In this case, the DOT, would contract a drone operator. The drone operator’s job might begin by contacting the FAA to set up airspace for the mission. It would likely involve selection and application of sensors to the aircraft. Sensor management, in Palmers opinion, is among the most important roles of the drone pilot. According to Palmer, “it’s just as important to know how the sensors work and their operation as it is to fly around the sky.” The, the drone pilot operator would plan, and if appropriate program the flights. Each flight would then require all the attention of a manned flight operation with the additional task of sensor management.

Sensor management is a key part of the equation. Palmer emphasizes that the drone pilot must be able to bridge the gap between his employers needs and the sensors that will be the tool that fills those needs. For the drone pilot that work begins with knowledge of the sensor manufacturers, sensor selection and mounting the devices to the vehicle, and continues through data mining. Once data is acquired by the sensors, says Palmer, the drone pilot should be able to determine how best to extract the information and apply it properly to effectively address the client’s needs. Keeping it simple, Palmer provided an example. “Let’s say the mission requires a camera. If they have 100 pictures,” he says, “we want our graduates to be able to select the ones that are most valuable to the mission.” It sounds simple enough, but this is where the range of sensors complicates the job of the UAS pilot. “This is a wide skill set,” says Palmer. And it’s one they’re still working to fully address at UND.

In Palmer’s view, drone pilots will do much more than direct the course of a vehicle through the air. He believes they will need to bridge the gap between client and data. Palmer puts it this way, “Our experience is that pilots and engineers both speak in their own independent languages. We need our pilots to be able to speak both languages, fluently.” And he’s developing UND’s curricula accordingly.

How Many And When, Doing What

When asked to speculate, Palmer believes the FAA will likely approve the operation of UAS in the NAS in stages. That applies to geographic locations as well as the sizes and weights of individual vehicles. It may start slowly, but Palmer believes that large scale expansion is coming. “You’re going to see an exponential growth in the number of systems operated. Where the military was in 2000, versus today … it’s in the thousands now where there was a relative handful back in 2000.” Palmer sees commercial operations following the same trend. And his belief has the support of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and the encouragement of legislators pushing the FAA to act by 2015.

The drone market will likely bloom first in the agriculture segment and with first responders, Palmer speculates. “The sensors that exist right now are very good at being able to tell the health of a crop. UAS can be deployed on a small scale to help farmers know which sections of crops need more, and what kind of, fertilizer.” Not all of those operations will need pilots. Palmer says he’s already aware of farmers working to develop hovercraft that would autonomously scan crops. The vehicles would read the results of the scan, load themselves and dispense appropriate fertilizer, chemicals, or pesticides, and then dispense that payload as needed, where needed, autonomously. They’d even refuel themselves — all without active human intervention.

Other near term UAS operations would be better performed with a human operator who would customize the aircraft and mission profile to suit the purpose. Specific examples include missions like search and rescue, performing traffic flow studies, and aiding in forest fire suppression. Each would require unique route planning, sensor selection, data evaluation and human to human communication performed actively by the UAS “pilot.” But the potential range of uses is extensive. “We’ve been asked to count ducks,” Palmer told us.

Who Will Choose To Fly On The Ground

The history of UAS in American airspace has yet to be written. But integration of unmanned aircraft into the U.S. national airspace system is scheduled to begin in 2015. One thing is clear. UAS pilots will be a slightly different breed, but if Palmer’s opinion proves true, they will still be pilots. And they may give up their time aloft quite willingly. An internal Air Force study highlighted recently by NBC news notes that of 244 undergraduates allowed to pick any career in the Air Force, one quarter elected to sign on as drone pilots. More to the point, of 487 fighter and bomber pilots assigned to three years drone duty, more than 410 elected to continue their careers as drone pilots when the three years were up. We don’t yet know how those patterns will translate to commercial aviation. But with 2015 looming, we’re about to find out.