By By Matt Zuccaro, President of HAI | May 5, 2014
Haven’t you heard? Welcome to the world of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Pilots are no longer required, at least not on board the aircraft.
No pilots? Is nothing sacred any more? 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. My direct control input was transferred via tubes and wires to the flight surfaces.
After that, we went to the dark side. Pilots were gradually stripped of their direct influence over their aircraft and had to acclimate to synthetic control pressures and fly by wire. The “feel of the aircraft” was removed slowly: first it was hydraulics, then stabilization systems, and then a copilot named George (also known as the integrated autopilot, or simply “the box”).
Now we pilots are experiencing the ultimate insult — they have thrown us out of the aircraft! Our pilot in command duties are to be performed in front of a screen or via direct visual contact with the aircraft from 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, if something goes wrong with a flight, isn’t the pilot usually the problem? I do not subscribe to this thinking. Haven’t you ever experienced a computer failure?
I do believe that UAVs are here to stay. They are coming to your airspace soon, if 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 HAI and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
The helicopter industry is the aviation segment that will be most affected by UAV operations, which are largely 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 UAVs. The current thinking among legislators, regulators, and courts seems to indicate 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 safety concerns. Recreational UAVs are an aviation segment that is relatively unregulated. Again, a cooperative effort by the involved parties needs to happen to ensure safety.
To create a safe, efficient operating environment for all airspace users, regulators and industry must develop and implement reasonable, yet effective regulations; certification requirements for UAVs, operators, and pilots; mandatory training programs; and the proper airspace surveillance and communications capabilities.
In the long term, 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, from the old control-line days that I loved as a kid to the current wireless control environment, has promoted a positive image for general aviation, created a public support base, and even assisted in supplying the next generation of professionals to our industry.
With regard to commercial vertical-lift UAV operations, helicopter operators stand to reap the greatest benefits because of their extensive background and training in the low-level, outside-the-infrastructure environment in the utility mission profile. UAVs operated as an extension or option to existing helicopter activity will allow commercial helicopter operators to deliver more services to a larger customer base over a wider mission profile and expanded economic cost range.
With the increased use of UAVs, helicopter operators should be looking for opportunities for new technology, additional operating capabilities, and expanded markets. The smart thinking says, get involved now. Who better to operate UAVs than helicopter operators?
What are your thoughts? Let me know via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
As always, have a safe flight and fly neighborly.
Matt Zuccaro is president of HAI.
Related: Unmanned News