“Cessna 48X, traffic 12 o’clock, 2 miles, 6,500, UAV maneuvering.” The ATC call was both surprising and ironic, since I was on my way from Los Angeles to Arizona to research an article about drones. I never saw the UAV, and the sound of the drone pilot’s response was not audible because communications from UAVs come from different frequencies. So the UAV truly appeared to be something unmanned.
Drones, UAVs, unmanned aerial systems (UASs) or whatever else you call them are aircraft that don’t have a pilot on board. The word unmanned is, however, somewhat of a misnomer. In many cases it takes a large crew to enable the flight of a drone. UAVs come in all kinds of shapes, sizes and configurations, from a hand-size helicopter or multicopter weighing less than 10 pounds and operated by a radio-controlled console to multimillion-dollar machines weighing thousands of pounds controlled by very complex systems. Drones have been used by the military for a long time, but they are now being transitioned into a variety of civilian roles.
Many in the general public are against drones because they are afraid that these unmanned aircraft will infringe on their privacy. Some are afraid of the dangers of UAV crashes. Many pilots are apprehensive about the integration of pilotless aircraft into some of the airspace in which we fly for fear of being taken out of the sky by a drone.
Fear of midair collision is well-founded. Drones are often small and even harder to see than conventional manned light aircraft. The FAA is working hard to create rules to keep aircraft carrying flesh and bone safe from those that consist only of inanimate parts.
While flying UAVs is vastly different from flying manned aircraft, there are some parallels. To become comfortable flying around them, it is important that we know more about how they operate.
IT’S BEEN A LONG TIME COMING
Drones have been used as military tools for many decades. The first recorded use of drones occurred as early as 1849. The March 10, 1849, edition of Scientific American reported that Austria had developed balloons carrying explosives that they used to bomb Venice to take back the city from the Venetian Republic. These balloons had a timer release and were highly inaccurate.
Today’s military drones are highly sophisticated aircraft that can be remotely operated through line-of-sight antennas or satellites and can hit their targets with extreme precision. The UAVs themselves have also become increasingly precise, to the point where operators flying the latest U.S. military drone in development, the Northrop Grumman X-47B,, are capable of making it take off from and land on an aircraft carrier.
In the past decade, the use of drones has been increasingly implemented in nonmilitary roles such as law enforcement, fire surveillance and more. The use of drones for civilian applications is the next step. While questionable as far as their legality, light drones are already being used for aerial photography in applications such as real estate and major sporting events. They have also been used for small deliveries, such as dropping off beer to ice fishermen on a frozen lake in Minnesota (the FAA put an end to the publicity stunt when it found out about it), and Amazon has already voiced its intent to make deliveries by UAV once the airspace has opened up.
The FAA has approved a COA for a UAV test site in North Dakota that uses a Draganflyer X4ES Multicopter for agricultural research.|
INTEGRATION INTO THE NAS
The FAA has been mandated by Congress to integrate UAVs into the national airspace system no later than Sept. 30, 2015, through the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. The FAA first started integrating UAVs into the NAS in 1990, but there are currently numerous restrictions on their use. Commercial drone operations are already authorized, said FAA public affairs officer Les Dorr, but “a commercial flight requires a certified aircraft, a licensed pilot and operating approval. To date, one operation has met these criteria, using Insitu’s ScanEagle, and authorization was limited to the Arctic.” And without any certification standards for light drone operators, this requirement is just about impossible to meet.
Civilian drones have to operate under an Experimental airworthiness certificate and solely for the purpose of research and development, training and flight demonstrations. Public entities, such as law enforcement, firefighting, border patrol and search and rescue, can apply for a Certificate of Authorization (COA) — a block of airspace where the agency can operate under certain strict conditions.
The Predator is controlled through ground-based and satellite links, hence the dish antenna under the hump of the UAV’s fuselage.|
The Customs and Border Patrol at Libby Army Airfield in Sierra Vista, Arizona, which operates eight Predator B drones around the country, has been at the forefront of the NAS integration. The facility’s operations specialist (CBP asked to exclude names to protect the identity of its law-enforcement officers) said CBP’s COA document includes strict geographical limitations and crew requirements.
Just like manned airplanes, the Predator B’s that CBP uses in Sierra Vista are launched with Libby’s tower controllers, who pass on the aircraft to Libby Army Airfield controllers in the surrounding restricted airspace. Once in Class A airspace, over 18,000 feet, Albuquerque Center takes over communications services. “We’re always under positive control,” said the CBP deputy director.
If there are no ATC services available, a manned airplane has to fly behind the Predator with a pilot and an observer to provide see-and-avoid services. NASA is currently working on a “detect, see and avoid” system for UAVs through its Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST) project, which is also working to validate the use of UAVs for operational science missions.
CBP’s COA requires a visual observer, who is required to hold a Class II medical certificate and to be on the field and in direct communication with the drone pilot during takeoffs and landings to make sure there is nothing obstructing the path of the UAV. If the tower is closed, a chase airplane and three ground observers are required.
To mitigate the risk in case of a systems failure, CBP’s COA includes termination points — areas where Predators can crash-land with minimal risk to the public. CBP’s operations officer said the Predator has about a 25-nautical-mile gliding distance from the common operations altitude, around FL 200, so there are termination points about every 50 miles within the COA.
While the integration of highly sophisticated drones operated in a structured environment such as the CBP appears to present minimal risk to surrounding aircraft or the public, establishing rules and regulations for an industry that could potentially range from head-size drones flying at low altitudes to massive, solar-powered aircraft at altitudes barely within our atmosphere comes with a great level of complexity. But Dorr attempts to make it quite simple. “The bottom line is the same for any aircraft, manned or unmanned: Can the applicant conduct the proposed operation without hazard to other aircraft or to people and property on the ground?”
Regulatory requirements for unmanned aircraft will vary “depending on the nature and complexity of the operation, aircraft or component system limitations, pilot and other crew member qualifications, and the operating environment,” Dorr said.
But today the rules are blurry for light UAV operators flying at low altitudes. According to The Wall Street Journal, the FAA imposed a $10,000 fine on a commercial photographer who used a UAV to take aerial pictures in Virginia in October 2011. NTSB’s administrative law judge Patrick Geraghty dismissed the fine, stating that the FAA has no jurisdiction over small commercial drones. The FAA is appealing that case.
Under section 336 of the 2012 FAA Reauthorization, the FAA cannot promulgate rules and regulations on recreational model aircraft. But as stated by the FAA in 2007: “You may not fly a UAS for commercial purposes by claiming that you’re operating according to the Model Aircraft guidelines (below 400 feet, 3 miles from an airport, away from populated areas).” Nonetheless, commercial UAV operators, such as multicopter photographers, are becoming more and more widespread, and the Virginia case is giving them a reason to argue that what they are doing is legal.
To help create clear rules that make sense for the UAV market, the FAA has established six test sites around the country in varied environments. What rules will eventually become established for commercial drones remains to be seen.
With the Predator at 22,000 feet, I was able to get very detailed images from the ground by manipulating the high-definition camera.|
FLYING A DRONE IN THE NAS
I visited the CBP facility at Libby Army Airfield to experience firsthand what it takes to fly a drone in the NAS. The mission I observed started before sunrise with a thorough briefing involving about a dozen crew members including the pilot, sensor operator, maintenance technician, airspace specialist, avionics technician and a command duty officer who acts as a mission commander.
The CBP deputy director told me that the level of detail involved in the drone flight briefings far exceeds the briefings for their manned aircraft, which include airplanes such as the Cessna Citation C-550, Beechcraft King Air, Pilatus PC-12 and Cessna 182.
The pilot’s station includes a throttle quadrant, a control stick, a keyboard, a mouse and several computer screens. There are also a fuel shutoff switch and a landing gear lever on the control panel. The Predator’s payload operator has the same setup, but what appears to be a second set of controls is actually the setup to operate the sensor — the massive camera under the nose of the CBP Predator.
The increased use of UAVs in the military may mean the end of fighter pilots as we know them.
While unable to control the aircraft, the payload operator acts as a copilot during the startup, which takes about 45 minutes to one hour and involves a maintenance technician alongside the drone to help get the Predator going. Communications involve CRM much as with pilots flying sophisticated airplanes. A long list of checks is completed and flight parameters are entered into the computer, including the altitude, transponder code, course, link data and, importantly, a lost link emergency procedure.
The ground control station’s flight controls link to the Predator via either satellite through a massive ground-based dish and a mini satellite dish inside the nose of the predator — hence the hump — or a directional line-of-sight microwave antenna. As the drone flies in line-of-sight, the ground-based antenna follows the Predator’s track, like a magnet or an eye that can’t take the sight off its target.
I was surprised to learn that a loss of the satellite link is not uncommon. The deputy director said that it generally lasts for only a few seconds and is often due to atmospheric disturbances, such as severe weather.
Loss of link is naturally a big concern, and it becomes imperative that the operator always think ahead of the drone. For example, when a new altitude is assigned, the operator must update the emergency mission. Otherwise, in the case of a lost link, the drone will return to the altitude of the initial emergency mission, which is not what ATC expects.
Speaking of ATC, in case of a lost link the communications are also lost; but the drone automatically squawks 7600 within six seconds, so controllers will know there is a problem. ATC then will call the operator on the phone or vice versa.
Should the link not be re-established, the emergency mission would bring the drone back to the home field, where the line-of-sight link would be re-established. The deputy director is not aware of any case in which the satellite link was not re-established or a line-of-sight link was lost.
While the line-of-sight antenna needs to be able to “see” the drone at all times, the satellite link allows drone pilots to fly the airplane anywhere. However, satellite operations have limitations. There is a 1.5- to two-second delay in the control response, so the takeoffs and landings must be done with the line-of-sight antenna. That doesn’t mean, however, that a drone has to land where it took off.
Referring to a previous UAV job he held, the CBP Predator pilot told me, “We would fly from El Mirage, California, up to China Lake and there would be a crew in China Lake that would recover the aircraft and land it.
“The weird thing was launching and doing a cross-country somewhere, giving the plane to somebody else, watching them land it and then getting out of the ground control station. … Oh, wait, I’m still in El Mirage!” Say what? Yes, that is right. The control of drones can be transferred to a different ground control system. The GCS Customs and Border Protection, where the drone operators work, looks much like a large, windowless storage box. The entire setup including the antennas is mobile.
After taking off from Libby, the CBP pilot positioned the Predator at FL 220, circling a few miles from the airport. I had a chance to work the camera and was easily able to track a semitrailer along a local freeway. Then I zoomed out, redirected the camera and found the Cessna 182 that I had flown to Libby. I zoomed in on it and was able to read the N-number on its fuselage, with the Predator still at 22,000 feet. The usefulness of the Predator for CBP was made very clear, as was its potential for other kinds of snooping.
After about an hour’s flight time, the crew in Sierra Vista handed off the Predator’s controls to a crew in North Dakota, which conducted a training mission from there since the winter weather in the north is not conducive to flying.
To transfer control, the pilot in Arizona disconnected the satellite link. The link status indication on the systems screen was similar to a heartbeat on a hospital monitor, with a line oscillating up and down. Without a link, the indication flat-lined. Within seconds, the crew in North Dakota took over and the “heartbeat” returned. The Predator continued to fly in the airspace over Libby Airfield, but with pilots on the ground in North Dakota controlling it.
Relieved of his flight duties, the pilot took me to another GCS to guide me through a simulated Predator flight. Sitting down at the control station, I found the setup somewhat reminiscent of a sophisticated home-based Microsoft flight simulator. But the man-machine interface was quite cumbersome. To enter information, such as an assigned altitude, course or transponder code, I had to go through multiple menus that are accessed through keyboard keys. Double-clicking the mouse correctly, an action that is required for several inputs, was also difficult. I tend to agree with a comment made by the deputy director — the Predator was made for a mission; it wasn’t made for the pilots who fly it.
While the interface takes getting used to, the biggest difference is the lack of sensory cues when flying a drone. There is no depth perception, seat-of-the-pants sensation or audible cue from power adjustments or the airflow along the airframe that I as a pilot have come to rely on both consciously and unconsciously. An efficient instrument scan and a stabilized approach become more important than ever.
While much of the setup for the drone is very different, the flight characteristics are quite similar. Takeoffs, maneuvers and landings are procedurally flown just as in a manned airplane. Autopilot operations are easy, as long as you know the menu setup. With its high-aspect-ratio 66-foot wingspan, the Predator is quite finicky when it gets slower on final. Small, timely inputs are critical. But while I naturally couldn’t feel it, I made what appeared to be a smooth landing.
So, should we be worried about drones? The FAA appears to be taking the right approach to drone integration, doing its due diligence before allowing aircraft devoid of eyes to fly anywhere above the ground.
As for the highly regulated, sophisticated drones that fly around our NAS today, I would not worry. If you communicate with ATC you are not likely to run into a Global Hawk or a Predator any time in the future. Their emergency procedures also appear to be working. In January, CBP had to terminate a Predator flight after a generator failed. With about 30 minutes of power left on the onboard battery, the CBP chose a controlled crash at a termination point in the Pacific Ocean. “It was a nonevent,” said the operations specialist.
Failures with less-sophisticated drones could be more of a concern, however. A triathlete in Australia recently suffered a head injury from a crashed photo drone.
Another concern is hijacking. In 2011, the Iranian government was somehow able to capture an American Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel. And in 2012, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and his team of students were able to demonstrate the ability to spoof the GPS system of a drone, right in front of representatives from the Department of Homeland Security.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
While the commercial integration of UASs is far from complete, big money is already starting to get pumped into the industry. In hopes of being able to provide broadband services to people around the globe who currently have no access, tech giants Facebook and Google recently bought two companies, Ascenta and Titan Aerospace, both in development of high-flying solar-powered drones that will serve as wireless broadband stations. The concept has already been proven to some extent. In 2001, NASA’s ERAST program brought a solar-powered Helios prototype to an altitude of 96,863 feet.
Whether we’ll see drone deliveries by Amazon or others any time soon remains to be seen. But the idea is certainly a compelling one.
In a 2013 market analysis study, the Teal Group predicted that the UAS market will double in the next 10 years, from $5.2 billion annually to $11.6 billion, accounting for $89 billion in the 10-year period. Assuming the necessary regulations are in place, the FAA expects as many as 7,500 small commercial UASs to be in operation by 2018.
Would I rather fly drones than manned airplanes? Most definitely not. But after learning more about them I have a greater appreciation for the usefulness of UAVs. The FAA appears to be taking the right approach as it works out the details of rules, regulation and integration. But unfortunately rules mean nothing if they are not followed. I will definitely continue my habit of flying at safe altitudes and communicating with ATC even when I fly under VFR rules in hopes of being warned of what lurks in my airspace. And I will continue to scan the skies for flying objects, whether manned or not.
The budding UAV industry is providing good-paying drone pilot jobs for pilots willing to fly drones. While airline pilot salaries are still starting in the low $20,000s, drone pilots can expect to make at least $60,000 and even six-digit salaries right out of school if they are willing to be deployed, said Paul Snyder, assistant director for extension programs at the University of North Dakota. There is a high demand for drone pilots, and high-paying jobs are popping up around the country on a daily basis.
With commercial UAVs being such a new market, education is still in the sprouting stage. UND and Embry-Riddle have the most well-known established UAV programs available today, offering majors in unmanned aircraft systems. But only a few dozen students have graduated from the programs to date. Both schools use a combination of multicopters and small fixed-wing light UAVs, some developed by the students, and simulators for more complex drones.
Embry-Riddle’s Prescott-based program has a lab setup, built by its students, that is capable of simulating a variety of UAVs, big and small. The lab also allows drone students to interact with tower controllers and students flying simulated manned aircraft. The ATC students can see the aircraft in real time on radar screens and large screens in a tower simulator.
In addition to ERAU and UND, there is a dedicated Unmanned Vehicle University with headquarters in Phoenix. The school offers UAV pilot training and other UAV-related certificates, as well as master’s and doctorate degrees in unmanned systems engineering.
If you are already a commercial pilot, there are some employers that train drone operators on the job. Customs and Border Protection provides training programs that result in two types of ratings for Predator operators: a launch and recovery element, for pilots capable of taking off and landing, and a mission control element (MCE) for pilots who can act only as relief pilots while the drone is in the air. Pilots generally fly as an MCE for about one year before they can be trained to become a launch and recovery element.
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