Leading Edge

By By Frank Lombardi | February 1, 2016
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Without a doubt, the explosion in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) technology brought consumer-level drones to many homes across the globe this past holiday season. So when my nephew was excited to show me his, I realized I had control of one for the very first time. The experience confirmed my mixed feelings about whether drones, their technology and their potential for technology have a positive or negative effect on the future.

Once I was taught the simple tablet-operated controls, I was able to lift the drone off into a stable hover. Within a few minutes, I moved it around with some precision. I was impressed with its stability and the control I had using nothing more than my thumbs. This model also had a video camera, which transmitted a view back to the controlling tablet. Though it was possible, trying to precisely command the drone only by reference to the tablet video proved to be more difficult, and I was uncomfortable with the sensory deprivation and lack of cueing it afforded.

My family commented on how much better I, “a real pilot,” could fly it, even with only a few minutes of experience. I scoffed at the silliness of the comment, but after thinking about it, I theorized why they might have said that. If anything, what they saw was not my superior skill in handling the drone, but rather my years of first-person-developed situational awareness, decision-making and flight discipline, all of which amount to professionalism as an aviator. Although most view this drone as a toy, I consciously treated it with the respect I’d give any flying object.


I’m sure that sounds overly dramatic to some, or even trite to others. I’m not suggesting every non-certificated drone operator who is incapable or irresponsible is a rogue pilot or has poor intentions, nor am I saying drones are bad. It’s just that technology has made it much easier for virtually anyone to bypass the entire “crawl-walk-run” phase of any maturation process, including aviation. As a result, the book on human factors is (almost too) slowly being rewritten.

Systems engineering often uses the SHEL model to examine the interaction between software (S), hardware (H), environment (E) and liveware (L). Software refers to objectives, rules and procedures. Hardware refers to any necessary equipment, tools or devices. Environment refers to climate, terrain and location. Liveware refers to crew and passengers.

As I perform the SHEL model on UAS, I continually come across system engineering challenges on the pilot not being co-located with the aircraft. Those challenges include datalink delay, the lack of physical, visual and aural cueing and display and control system design, to name a few.

I’m sure with time they will be overcome. But what about the changing face of liveware? For it is not just the aircraft, but also information that is no longer co-located with the pilot.

For many, the line between technology’s use as a tool instead of a crutch is already blurred. If we are not careful, reliance on automation can easily cause a “situational detachment” rather than the much more desirable situational awareness. Technology also is redefining how human beings gather, process and retain information.

We are the most powerful computer onboard any aircraft or as part of any UAS, yet we are choosing less and less information to store on our own hard drive. Perhaps I am introducing my own bias into what I see as an evolving new equation. But while automation is allowing significant gains in capability, what’s being lost is human adaptability—something very necessary when things go wrong. This adaptability only comes from the retention of each and every byte of data that gets stored in our brain (i.e. hard drive) during the crawl-walk-run process and returns as wisdom when needed. Anyone with any sort of aviation wisdom knows that things can and will go wrong.

Technology has a huge potential to short-circuit the crawl-walk-run process if we let it, and the wisdom of safe professional aviation cannot totally be built into automation. So let’s stop looking down so much at our devices and continue to look within. Some equations just can’t be solved by a few swipes or taps on a screen, and soon enough it’s not the machines, but rather the operators, whom I fear are to become the drones.

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