UAVs pose little threat to civilian pilot jobs

 - January 26, 2011, 9:00 AM

Do UAVs threaten civil pilot careers? That’s the question that AIN posed to several attendees at a recent conference in Montreal, sponsored by industry trade group Unmanned Systems Canada. The answer: it seems unlikely, other than for young pilots just setting out on their careers, or a small number of pilots flying specialized applications.

Industry representatives were virtually unanimous in the opinion that unmanned freight and passenger operations will happen some day. But most predicted they will not take place until the 2040/2050 time frame. Separate USAF and RTCA studies reflect a similar view. Some expressed the opinion that smaller civil freight operations, using Cessna Caravans and similar aircraft, could commence earlier, should the cost/benefit of replacing pilots with full avionics automation, including autoland, make it feasible. In commercial operations, cost/benefit–or investment payback–is key. For certain specialized operations such as local aerial surveys, however, small, cheap UAVs are already slowly replacing conventional aircraft and their pilots.

No one was prepared to comment about business aviation. Intuitively, corporate pilots could appear to have the least to worry about, since as long as a company keeps its aircraft, its pilots would not normally be assessed by company management for their cost/benefit.

Military Applications Thrive

UAV production has accelerated rapidly over the past five years, with industry reports that there were, in mid-2010, more than 1,250 different types in production or under development at some 500 organizations in 52 different countries. In each case, those numbers have more than doubled since 2005. It is estimated that there are several thousand UAVs in current–almost entirely military–operation, ranging from hand-launched models to sophisticated machines such as Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk, which has the wingspan of a Boeing 737 and an mtow of more than 30,000 pounds. Today, every nation’s military is buying UAVs.

The UAV “threat” to civil pilots therefore depends on what type of aircraft and mission they fly, and maybe even on their planned date of retirement. Put another way, everything depends on the evolution of the unmanned aircraft themselves and, despite claims in the popular media, UAVs still have a long way to go before they start to affect the human pilot community. There are two main reasons for this: market demand and safety.

Civil market demand today appears exclusively to be for low-cost, hand-launched and battery-powered propeller machines, with wingspans of a couple of feet and guided by miniature autopilots that follow pre-programmed GPS tracks. Payloads are miniaturized–yet extremely capable–versions of the large vertical cameras and other sensors used in conventional aerial survey work, and UAV sorties usually last less than 60 minutes, followed by a soft landing at the final GPS waypoint. And they are impressive: see These and similar units are already entering the airborne survey market. But no one at the conference was aware of any effort to develop large civil UAVs.

Safety is also essential for operations in the NAS, starting with collision avoidance. Size, weight and cost rule out Tcas, so UAV research is aimed at unique detect, sense and avoid (DSA) techniques. Regrettably, however, Tcas compatibility does not appear to be mandatory. At Montreal, mention of Tcas was sometimes met with blank stares, particularly from enthusiastic young engineers lacking aviation savvy. They also seemed to believe that once the DSA averts potential collisions, there is nothing else to worry about. FAA regulators are pondering appropriate airworthiness standards, which liability insurance companies will certainly require.

Overall, UAVs have the potential to play valuable roles in aviation in the 21 century. But many challenges lie ahead, and these must all be resolved long before they become a common sight in our skies, if not in our windshields.