A Different Set of Skills
When we look at the skills required to pilot an aircraft we can see that many skills transfer from manned to unmanned aviation. Concepts such as airmanship, situational awareness, and task management form a solid foundation. But where manned aviation necessarily focuses inside the cockpit training, unmanned aviation forces the pilot to visualize the aircraft and airspace while remaining on the ground, and potentially on the other side of the world. Basic aircraft control concepts remain valid, but the control feedback is separated from the aircraft.

  1. Captaining a UAV The ability to act as a mission commander or pilot-in-command is essential to unmanned aviation. Different unmanned systems will drive differing crew needs, but the crew concept translates well from manned aviation. In a manned aircraft the crew is aboard the aircraft with a single-minded focus. In unmanned aviation a diverse cast can have roles and from communications specialists to payload operators to pilots everyone must work together to get make the system successful. Because the crew may not be co-located the term virtual crew has been coined. The term simply refers to the connected nature of those supporting the unmanned system. How the virtual crew is tied together (voice, voice over IP phone, hand held radios, computer messaging, etc) can be as diverse as the crew makeup but becomes an essential piece of the system as a failure in virtual crew communications is as damaging to the unmanned system as it is in manned aviation. The mission commander must pull the crew together to make the mission succeed. The management challenge can be substantial – effective pre-mission planning to build a shared mental model for the virtual crew, clear and concise communications during the mission, and maintaining control of the diverse parts of the crew and mission when the plan meets reality. Experience varies widely in pilots, sensor operators, and support personnel; checklists and procedures can change quickly – the ability to lead in such an environment do not require strong stick-and-rudder skills – it requires strong mission commander skills.
  2. The Cutting Edge of Technology & Performance With normalized aviation comes a standard vernacular – this is codified in the Airman’s Information Manual and similar sources. While a standard operating language does not yet exist for unmanned aviation pockets of commonality exist within each system but are often unique when viewed in the context of other unmanned systems. It becomes essential for unmanned system operators to “liais” (verb tense of liaison) the manned and the unmanned worlds. A loss of aircraft communications will take on different meanings when used with an unmanned system. And no equivalent of a lost-link exists in manned aviation. The unmanned system operator must be ready to educate when necessary and correct when required. New systems require new procedures and who better to develop those procedures and educate others on their use? One example of the dichotomy of unmanned aviation is with the cockpit – with manned aviation the cockpit is obviously connected to the aircraft and has limited access during flight – with unmanned aviation the cockpit can take many forms from a basement room to a portable container and access to the cockpit is more easily accessed. Accessibility is a blessing and a curse – on the positive side problems can be corrected while the system is operating but the down side is that maintaining the integrity of the cockpit can be a constant challenge. It is up to those on the cutting edge to act as ambassadors to the world – bridging the gap from the old to the new.
  3. Thinking Remotely A remotely piloted aircraft by any other name is just an airplane. And like everything that flies it follows the same laws of physics and gravity that allowed the Wright Brothers to soar into history. It is possible to the control of an unmanned aircraft to flying an aircraft with a fly-by-wire system – albeit one that extends for many feet or miles. When the pilot makes a flight control input for an unmanned system it is processed by a computer which then directs power to the flight control actuator. The command and control link bridges the distance between the operator and the aircraft. There are many types of communications links that can provide command and control pathways and knowing which type of system to use depends heavily on cost, environmental, and security considerations.
  4. Thinking Farther Ahead of the Aircraft When learning to fly any aircraft it is common to be told that the pilot must learn to think ahead of the aircraft – this can assist in preventing bad situations from getting worse and may prevent the situation from developing at all. In unmanned systems that possess some degree of autonomy it is essential that the operator be exceedingly familiar with what the system will autonomously do in a given situation – this extends from knowing what the aircraft is going to do and what the aircraft may do in an emergency situation. Predictability is critical to safe aviation and those skills must be nourished. The worlds of manned and unmanned aviation are not as far apart as it may seem at first – but effective training is critical. AACES is ready to assist you in developing a world-class unmanned aviation program – from small systems to trans-continental systems we have the experience you need.