Drones are everywhere. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are the most talked about segment of the aviation industry, and not a day goes by without something in the news about drones. It’s a segment of aviation that’s growing by the minute, with opportunities abounding. People are clamoring to jump on the drone bandwagon and grab a piece of the projected $13.6 billion dollars in revenue that they’ll generate by 2018.
The very word “drone” is becoming acceptable, whereas just a few years ago, it connoted Big Brother spying on the populace with weaponized flying vehicles. Drones have become “cool,” especially with Hollywood leading the charge toward making drones common sights in our skies. Meanwhile, the military continues its use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), expanding in numbers and reach. While pilot numbers shrink, UAVs continue to proliferate. With all the growth, there remains one question: Who’ll operate all these drones?
To get semantics out of the way, the term “drone” encompasses the entire spectrum of unmanned aerial vehicles or “UAVs.” There are many different types of UAVs, and they range from $30 remote- controlled quadcopters at hobby stores to multimillion-dollar military systems with significant weapons and surveillance capabilities. They’re all vehicles that fly in the skies above us without an onboard pilot or operator. Instead, they’re controlled from ground positions of varying scale, from a kid standing in a park with an iPhone to a sophisticated and hardened underground complex run by computer. Collectively, they can all be referred to as “drones.”
How popular are drones? There are entire magazines dedicated to the drone world, such as Unmanned Systems and Mission Critical, along with sites like www.droneanalyst.com. There’s The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), which is the world’s largest nonprofit organization devoted exclusively to advancing the unmanned systems and robotics community. They have an enormous membership that influences the world’s politics and regulation of UAVs. Scheduled for May 8th and 9th, 2015, is the already sold-out Unmanned Systems Business Exposition in San Francisco, as well as Silicon Valley’s Drone Show at the end of April. The FAA has its own UAS integration department, complete with federal budget and staffing. Lastly, there are respected university programs dedicated exclusively to UAVs, with undergraduate and graduate degrees specific to the UAV arena. There are even schools popping up offering only UAV programs. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) called 2015 “The Year of the Drone.”
The U.S. Air Force is offering financial incentives to try and attract more pilots to UAV ranks. Shortages of UAV operators already exist in military units.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was tasked with coming up with regulations for commercial drone operation by 2015. The agency’s latest proposed rules, issued in February 2105, are contained in FAA Docket No.: FAA-2015-0150; Notice No. 15-01. The last day for public comment on these rules was April 24, 2015.
Boeing’s Phantom Eye is a liquid hydrogen-fueled, high-altitude unmanned aircraft that will stay aloft for 10 days executing intelligence missions.
Because unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are inherently different from manned aircraft, the FAA has had a difficult challenge in introducing UAS into the nation’s airspace. Also, because the U.S. has the busiest, most complex airspace in the world, the FAA is taking an incremental approach to safe UAS integration.
The FAA has divided drone operations into three categories: Public (governmental), Civil (nongovernmental) and Model Aircraft (hobby and recreation use only). Each category has its own regulations and stipulations. The latest news is the FAA’s granting of waivers for commercial use, which includes the film industry, agriculture, real estate and many others. While hobby operators of small UAVs are essentially unregulated, civil commercial use of UAVs is tightly controlled. There are presently two methods of gaining FAA authorization to fly civil (nongovernmental) UAS:
1. Section 333 Exemption—a grant of exemption in accordance with Section 333 and a civil Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA); this process may be used to perform commercial operations in low-risk, controlled environments.
2. Special Airworthiness Certificate (SAC)—applicants must be able to describe how their system is designed, constructed and manufactured, including engineering processes, software development and control, configuration management and quality assurance procedures used, along with how and where they intend to fly. They’d then be issued an SAC in the Experimental category or a UAS type and airworthiness certificate in the Restricted Category.
US Air Force Col. Larry Felder (left) discusses MQ-1 Predator drone characteristics with UAV evaluation detachment Director, Capt. Nick Devereaux.
Those wishing to try their hand at drone operations need to remember that any type of financial compensation falls under the FAA’s commercial UAV regulations. You can shoot photos of the beach from your UAV, but if you make money from them, you immediately become a commercial UAV operator. Meanwhile, model/hobby pilots only have to follow some basic regulations:
• Fly below 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles
• Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times
• Remain well clear of and don’t interfere with manned aircraft operations
• Don’t fly within five miles of an airport unless you contact the control tower before flying
• Don’t fly near people or stadiums
• Don’t fly an aircraft that weighs more than 55 pounds
• Don’t be careless or reckless with your unmanned aircraft—you could be fined for endangering people or other aircraft
After a rigorous 10-month selection process involving 25 proposals from 24 states, the Federal Aviation Administration chose six UAS research and test site operators across the country where UAV operations can be observed and tested. These include the University of Alaska, the State of Nevada, New York’s Griffiss International Airport, North Dakota Department of Commerce, Texas A&M University and Virginia Polytechnic Institute (Virginia Tech), along with test ranges in several states.
In addition to UAV operators, skilled maintenance technicians, recovery specialists, data analysts and ground support personnel are needed to accommodate UAVs like this MQ-9 Reaper.
UAV Pilot Jobs
It’s important to note the differences in the FAA’s UAV categories because they impact pilots from an employment perspective. Small, noncommercial drones simply don’t need FAA-certificated pilots to operate them. However, larger commercial-use drones may require operation by certificated pilots. The FAA’s latest proposed rules say that if the aircraft (UAV) is issued an airworthiness certificate, then a pilot certificate is required to operate it. Pilot certification requirements under Section 333 exemptions are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. What it means for prospective drone pilots is that opportunities will likely grow rapidly.
Several big players in the commercial UAV sector are hoping the FAA relaxes certification rules. For example, The Small UAV Coalition, a trade group representing companies including Amazon.com, Inc., and Google, Inc., urged the FAA to allow drone delivery flights. Both Amazon and Google are testing unmanned aircraft that would deliver packages. The FAA is allowing these companies to do controlled testing, though drone delivery of packages would still be prohibited under the FAA’s latest proposed rules. Companies like Amazon have recently started headhunting experienced engineers who can design and build UAVs, and they’ll also need pilots to operate them.
Amazon’s job website says: “Amazon Prime Air is looking for flight operations and certification personnel for flight testing our UAS technologies. You can expect to collaborate on test plans, plan the test evolution and execute the flights while working closely with our flight engineering and flight test teams in Seattle.”
The federal government employs the most UAV pilots, along with civilian companies associated with them through defense contracts. Government sector drone pilots easily earn over $100,000 and up, along with solid benefit packages. The AUVSI says that as many as 100,000 new jobs will be created in the first 10 years after unmanned aircraft are cleared for commercial use in U.S. airspace. The report estimates an overall economic impact of $82 billion.
Of note to prospective UAV pilots is that the current drone pilot force is nearing the end of their commitment contract, and replacement pilots are already in high demand. The Air Force is concerned enough that it just announced a significant pay increase for RPV (remotely piloted vehicles) operators. RPVs are smaller and lighter than the better-known MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper UAVs. The Pentagon has more than 200 Predators and more than 100 Reapers, which are made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., in San Diego, Calif.
Of course, all isn’t rosy for UAV pilots, especially those in the military. In January, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James revealed that those pilots are under “significant stress from what is an unrelenting pace of operations.” She added, “They are working 13-, 14-hour days on average. And to give you a contrast, an average pilot in one of our manned Air Force aircraft flies between 200 and 300 hours per year.” UAV pilots are constantly fighting for legitimacy in a climate where they’re looked at as “video game players.” The Air Force has added financial incentives to try and lure more active duty pilots to the drone ranks.
On the civilian side, the industries using the most UAVs are aerial photography (including the film industry), mapping, inspections (different types), construction, and surveillance. Filmmaking and videography are the most mature commercial drone markets. At the same time, farming, security, oil and gas exploration, and construction, are anxious to begin using drones as well. One commercial carrier, Empire Airlines, has even launched a new division—”Empire Unmanned”—that will offer agricultural field monitoring and other precision agricultural services using drones. Developed in conjunction with Advanced Aviation Solutions and Blair Farms, it’s a step toward integrating UAVs with current business models.
Several respected universities are meeting demand by offering UAV degree programs.
At the University of North Dakota, most of the first 61 drone pilots who graduated have gone to work at Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, General Atomics and Boeing. The college started its bachelor’s degree course in unmanned aircraft systems in 2008, and recently received a $25 million endowment to build a new drone research and training facility.
The Unmanned Vehicle University (www. uxvuniversity.com) in Phoenix, Ariz., offers a drone/UAV pilot training certificate for $3,500 that doesn’t require a college degree. The program consists of three phases of instruction, with the first two conducted at home using both simulator and ground training. Phase 3 is a flight school program consisting of 16 hours of flight training. The school also offers master and doctorate degrees in UAV specialties.
On The Horizon
The recent Germanwings crash, where a First Officer is alleged to have deliberately crashed the plane, has brought the idea of UAVs in the airline sector back under the spotlight. The public’s outrage at the incident was the first time unmanned airliners were considered as anything more than science fiction. It’s likely that discussion will continue, especially considering the technology is largely there. The specter of us travelling the sky in unmanned airliners is probably just a decade or two away.
The UAV industry is a bright spot for many, including entrepreneurs and pilots. For those leaving the military today, private contractors are offering more than double military pay. Drone pilots willing to live in less-than-ideal conditions can earn $225,000 or more if they’re willing to go to Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere overseas to launch and recover drones. It’s a mission that’s difficult to train, and private firms are willing to pay the price for experienced operators.
As the FAA’s commercial rules become more concrete and as the industry matures, UAVs will invade our lives more and more. With annual UAV pilot salaries averaging $100,000 across the board today, it’s clear the demand is already there. A quick Internet glance yielded 620 UAV operator positions right now.
It remains to be seen what the future will hold for unmanned aerial systems. But one fact is sure, pilotless aircraft are here today. How we embrace them in the aviation community is the next question.
Drones are so hot that schools are clamoring to introduce UAV programs to their curricula. The educational picture changes quickly so UAV programs come and go without much notice. Educational institutions offer varying levels of UAV programs, from a few classes to complete degree programs. Here, we present the most current listing of UAV programs across the country.