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Drone

Does future technology spell the end of drone training?

In the second article of this series we looked at the regulatory landscape and how the trend is moving towards a light-touch approach where online assessment will be the norm across Europe and the EU for the clear majority of commercial users.

Alongside the second article and this, the third article we consider whether we even need a formalised drone training programme at all.  In this article we look at some the technological advancements that are eliminating the potential requirement for drone training.

Automation

Drones are now being trialled on a grander scale by many organisations and countries all over the world.  For example, many are looking to operate within the African continent as the lack of airspace structure and volume of air traffic all conspire to make this an economic opportunity and enable many proof of concepts.  In addition, the training required and legal framework in such locations are very little or negligible on many occasions and the drones being used are either technologically simple or extremely complex.

In all these instances the drones are not being flown manually but automatically. They have not however flown “autonomously” as this implies a degree of self-thought which is not yet prevalent in most drones, even the Intel swarm demonstrations at the recent Winter Olympics.  

Systems Management becomes the priority

Military drone training programmes have evolved to such an extent that they are now a series of incremental courses, comparable in design to those of manned aviation where the 150hrs minimum is a pre-requisite for a Commercial Pilots Licence (CPL) but in comparison to those, their training equivalents are an order of magnitude different.  Consider the following examples:

Boeing Scaneagle

Royal Navy Scan eagle circa 20 kg, over open water only.  OEM delivered training, with Duty Holder oversight.  Previous aviation experience not necessary, but many have Flight Engineer backgrounds.

Army Watchkeeper circa 450kg, 16 hours light a/c 

flying and formal ground school, then a type rating.

RAF MQ-9 reaper circa 4700 kg, 6 weeks ground school and 56hrs flight training.  Most pilots are from a previous Aircrew background

The operational requirements as listed above have been chosen to enable suitable situational awareness of the Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS), which includes not only the physical act of flight but more importantly awareness of the surroundings of the drone and the environment of operation.  If we assume the military market for RPAS is technologically advanced compared to the civilian one – it is apparent the flying aspect required is somewhat different to a rudder-and-stick approach that founded manned aviation.

Even modern commercial airline training consists of greater simulator details that existed 10 years ago.  The majority of airline flying is now conducted through the autopilot, with typically only 10 minutes of hand-flying by airline pilots a maximum in any one sector as the role of pilots continues to evolve to become that of system managers.  However, the maxim still exists of “We are constantly flying the airplane with our minds, even if we choose to use some technology to help us move the controls.”

Push-Button Solutions

What is the relevance of this to small drone training and what is the future for training organisations if more and more companies are moving to automated systems? Where and what are the skills needed for a pilot? Do we even need a pilot anymore?  Consider the likes of Skyspecs.  Theirs is a wind turbine inspection solution which in its simplest form involves pushing a single button and the entire mission is completed without pilot input. The existence of the operator is purely in case of an emergency.  Then more recently the announcement from Skycatch and DJI to supply 1000 automatic inspection drones for Komatsu.

World’s First Robotic Industry

If the above three factors are valid, alongside that of a changing regulatory landscape from the previous article, how can we enable the drone industry to become safe enough (As Low As Reasonably Practical – ALARP) to enable autonomy and the growth of the world’s first truly robotic industry? It may seem that self-driving cars are likely to be the world’s first robotic industry, but they must integrate into a much more complex environment from that of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), as there is a huge volume of ground-based obstacles.

Summary

The last 2 articles make the argument that the nature of what it is to be a pilot with an advancement of technology and reduced legislation changes to that of a systems operator, with a functional understanding of aviation.  So, is drone training as we know it today, necessary?

The inevitable question then becomes if we do consider it necessary, how does the training aspect of the industry adapt to stay relevant and agile within an overall strategic framework?  In Part 4 we look at the response taken to the training challenge by organizations.

Consortiq are a UK National Qualified Entity (NQE) and the training lead on the USA AUVSI Trusted Operator Program (TOP) Committee, alongside their CQNet software and consultancy services.  If you would like to explore what they can offer to your organization, email: [email protected]

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