How to train the next gen­er­a­tion of pi­lots— who will never take to the skies. “I’M LOS­ING CON­TROL!”

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - BY PRESTON LERNER

Get­ting a de­gree in drones.

But Un­manned Ve­hi­cle Univer­sity in­struc­tor pi­lot Matt Mccurdy, who flew a 22-foot-wingspan, 260-pound Tiger­shark UAV in Afghanistan as a civil­ian con­trac­tor for the U.S. Navy, is bliss­fully un­con­cerned. Sit­ting in a sliver of shade in a bare-bones air­field, gaz­ing through a pair of Oak­ley sun­glasses at a com­puter screen show­ing the view from the tiny cam­era mounted in the dis­tant air­craft’s cock­pit, he calmly tells Gon­za­lez, “That’s be­cause we’re a lit­tle bit be­hind the roof. Go to half power.” “Half power,” Gon­za­lez con­firms. “Turn to the right,” says Mccurdy. “To the right?” asks Gon­za­lez. Mccurdy nods. “Pull back on the stick a lit­tle bit.” Gain­ing con­fi­dence, Gon­za­lez guides the air­plane over the field and lines it up with the run­way. “You could to­tally land it from here,” Mccurdy tells him. But he wants Gon­za­lez to get some more seat time be­fore at­tempt­ing a land­ing, and the bat­ter­ies in the air­plane are nearly spent. So Mccurdy takes con­trol of the ve­hi­cle and lands it him­self. “You did re­ally well for the first day,” he tells Gon­za­lez. “Now let’s get some­thing to eat, and we’ll go over some of the au­topi­lot func­tions.”

Gon­za­lez, 28, served as a U.S. Ma­rine in Afghanistan and re­cently earned a de­gree in Ara­bic and Mid­dle East­ern stud­ies from the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Los An­ge­les. He’d orig­i­nally in­tended to re­turn over­seas to work in se­cu­rity. But he’s in­trigued by the po­ten­tial of UAVS. “Drones are like the wave of the fu­ture, and I re­ally want to pur­sue a ca­reer fly­ing them,” he ex­plains. “So when I heard about this pro­gram, I said, ‘I’m go­ing to give it a shot.’ I didn’t even think twice about it.”

Gon­za­lez came across Un­manned Ve­hi­cle Univer­sity—a new, largely on­line school de­voted en­tirely to re­motely pi­loted ve­hi­cles—through a Google search. With a bit more ef­fort, he would have dis­cov­ered that big­ger, more-es­tab­lished schools with note­wor­thy aviation cur­ric­ula, such as Em­bry-rid­dle Aero­nau­ti­cal Univer­sity and the Univer­sity of North Dakota, have cre­ated UAV pro­grams of their own dur­ing the last few years. And sev­eral other schools are now of­fer­ing short cour­ses in UAV pi­lot train­ing.

But the lion’s share of the new pi­lots are com­ing from the hobby seg­ment of the mar­ket, where “drone” is the pre­ferred term. Some of them have tran­si­tioned from the ra­dio-con­trol com­mu­nity. Many more are aviation new­bies se­duced by a new breed of rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive multi-ro­tor air­craft fit­ted with cam­eras and a suite of so­phis­ti­cated elec­tron­ics that make fly­ing them ridicu­lously easy.

For this emerg­ing breed of do-it-your­selfers, flight train­ing usu­ally con­sists of breez­ing through the owner’s man­ual, watch­ing some Youtube videos, and lots of trial and er­ror. “I lit­er­ally charged the bat­tery, and then I took off,” says 28-year-old Scott Edwards, who was so amped by his first ex­pe­ri­ence that he founded Pdx­drones, a UAV club in Port­land, Ore­gon. Granted, Edwards al­ready held a pri­vate pi­lot’s li­cense, and he was fly­ing an en­try-level, ready-to-fly quad­copter. Still, he says, “I have taught five-year-olds who are fa­mil­iar with ipads to fly.”

At the mo­ment, the Fed­eral Aviation Ad­min­is­tra­tion gen­er­ally pro­hibits UAVS from be­ing used for com­mer­cial pur­poses (though this ban is rou­tinely flouted by, among oth­ers, real es­tate agents who want video footage of the prop­er­ties they’re list­ing). Last Septem­ber, the FAA ex­empted six aerial photo and video pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies from the ban on com­mer­i­cal use of drones. But for the time be­ing, the vast ma­jor­ity of civil­ian UAVS are gov­erned by the rules orig­i­nally writ­ten for ra­dio-con­trol mod­els. These en­tail not ex­ceed­ing an al­ti­tude of 400 feet and, if fly­ing within five miles of an air­port, no­ti­fy­ing the air­port op­er­a­tor and air traf­fic con­trol tower. Also, drones must be kept in sight at all times, so that even if the pi­lot is fly­ing with a first-per­son view, an

Pe­dro Gon­za­lez is three hours into his first day of un­manned aerial ve­hi­cle flight train­ing in the blis­ter­ing heat out­side Florence, Ari­zona, and he’s ner­vous about the fate of the white speck flut­ter­ing a few hun­dred feet over­head through the sun-drenched sky. It’s a small, re­mote-con­trol scale model of an ICON A5, a two-seat am­phibi­ous light sport air­craft.

ob­server must track the ve­hi­cle vis­ually.

The FAA is work­ing on com­pre­hen­sive reg­u­la­tions sched­uled to be re­leased some­time this year (though sev­eral dead­lines have al­ready been missed). When the rules go into ef­fect, “the growth will be tremen­dous,” says Michael Toscano, pres­i­dent and CEO of the As­so­ci­a­tion for Un­manned Ve­hi­cle Sys­tems In­ter­na­tional.

Toscano points out that un­manned ve­hi­cles are much cheaper and safer than manned air­craft, and they’re per­fectly suited for repet­i­tive or dan­ger­ous mis­sions. (Agriculture, from soil anal­y­sis to crop dust­ing, is pro­jected to be the most pop­u­lar ap­pli­ca­tion.) Toscano is fore­cast­ing that within three years af­ter the FAA ap­proves com­mer­cial UAV op­er­a­tions, there could be nearly 40,000 com­mer­cial drones zip­ping through the skies, with the new in­dus­try gen­er­at­ing bil­lions in rev­enue. Where are the pi­lots go­ing to come from? And who’s go­ing to train them?

As has tra­di­tion­ally been the case for con­ven­tional air­planes, the mil­i­tary will be a pri­mary source of UAV pi­lots. The U.S. Air Force, Navy, Army, and Ma­rine Corps all have train­ing pro­grams. Stephen Rayleigh, who flew a Shadow UAV for the Army in Iraq, re­calls the start­ing-from-scratch in­struc­tion he re­ceived at Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista, Ari­zona. “They took peo­ple with ab­so­lutely no un­der­stand­ing of how things worked,” he says. As it hap­pened, Rayleigh had al­ready earned his pri­vate pi­lot’s li­cense. But he still spent 60 hours in an Army sim­u­la­tor be­fore get­ting any time with the real thing.

Of course, a Shadow costs more than $500,000, so you can’t blame the Army for be­ing care­ful about who flies them. For much the same rea­son, the man­u­fac­tur­ers of other com­plex, high-end UAV sys­tems of­ten pro­vide pi­lot train­ing for their cus­tomers. Long­time ra­dio-con­trol avi­a­tor Gene Payson, who de­signed the flight train­ing pro­gram for Un­manned Ve­hi­cle Univer­sity, also serves as an in­struc­tor for the Lat­vian-built Pen­guin B UAV, which he sells at his Troy Built Mod­els hobby shop in Sara­sota, Florida.

Still, the vast ma­jor­ity of the growth in the field is ex­pected to come in small UAVS, loosely de­fined as less than 55 pounds and most of them much, much lighter than that. Un­til re­cently, this mar­ket had been vir­tu­ally ig­nored. Says Dan Mac­chiarella, chair­man of Em­bry-rid­dle’s Aero­nau­ti­cal Sci­ence De­part­ment: “We re­al­ized that the un­manned pi­lot train­ing was about where manned pi­lot train­ing had been in 1926.”

In 2011, Em­bry-rid­dle es­tab­lished a four-year UAV de­gree pro­gram with two com­ple­men­tary tracks. One, de­signed for stu­dents more in­ter­ested in the en­gi­neer­ing side of the busi­ness, fo­cuses on op­er­a­tions. The other, aimed at would-be avi­a­tors, con­cen­trates on the nu­ances of fly­ing. Be­sides get­ting a large dose of UAV train­ing, stu­dents in that track earn com­mer­cial pi­lot’s li­censes. So grad­u­ates will have feet in both manned and un­manned camps. The school now has 220 stu­dents in the pro­gram at Day­tona Beach, Florida, and it re­cently started of­fer­ing UAV classes at its cam­pus in Prescott, Ari­zona.

Zachary Wehr, a 23-year-old se­nior at Em­bry-rid­dle, has al­ready de­cided that he’d pre­fer to fly UAVS, as­sum­ing the right job comes along. “The big­gest draw­back of the UAS [un­manned air­craft sys­tems] plat­form is that you do not get feed­back, which makes it a bit dif­fi­cult to fly,” he says. “But when I’m fly­ing a UAV, if I’m high or low, I can cor­rect with­out wor­ry­ing about crash­ing it be­cause I’m not sit­ting in it. When I’m fly­ing a ‘real’ air­plane, I seem to take fewer risks, hon­estly.”

In 2013, gam­bling that UAVS would be the big­gest growth seg­ment in aviation, former Air Force F-4 and air­line pi­lot (and PH.D. en­gi­neer) Jerry Lemieux es­tab­lished Un­manned Ve­hi­cle Univer­sity. He be­lieved that the big­gest need in the

UAV com­mu­nity was tech­ni­cal, so he put to­gether un­der­grad­u­ate and grad­u­ate de­gree pro­grams heavy on design, en­gi­neer­ing, and project man­age­ment cour­ses. Lemieux died un­ex­pect­edly last sum­mer, leav­ing the fu­ture of the school in limbo. But late last year, the univer­sity was pur­chased by Stam­pede Pre­sen­ta­tion Prod­ucts, a global in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy com­pany. Payson is con­tin­u­ing to of­fer short­course flight train­ing through the school, as well as fac­tory-au­tho­rized train­ing through Troy Built Mod­els. Mccurdy, mean­while, has left the school and now flies for Sensin­tel, a UAV sys­tems in­te­gra­tor in Tuc­son, Ari­zona.

Lemieux was con­vinced the UAV flight train­ing would be han­dled in the fu­ture by Faa-cer­ti­fied in­struc­tor pi­lots. But mem­bers of the small-drone com­mu­nity fore­see a much dif­fer­ent fu­ture, at least in their seg­ment of the mar­ket. At most, they envi­sion some­thing like a wa­tered-down driver’s li­cense earned by pass­ing an on­line test. But more likely, they say, is a lack of any for­mal train­ing reg­i­men, though some re­stric­tions—on al­ti­tude, say, or a des­ig­nated airspace—might be writ­ten into the GPS code that all drones will carry.

Un­like tra­di­tional ra­dio-con­trol air­craft, which have a steep learn­ing curve, mod­ern drones tend to be no-brain­ers. GPS and on­board sen­sors un­der­pin a re­turn-to-home func­tion that en­ables a drone to land au­tonomously back where it took off. “It makes it very easy for a new­bie to learn how to fly,” says Pablo Lema.

Lema, 34, speaks from per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence. His in­ter­est in drones was sparked af­ter re­ceiv­ing a tiny ra­dio-con­trol he­li­copter as a gift. He ended up be­com­ing not only a first-per­son-view fly­ing ex­pert but also go­ing to work at 3D Ro­bot­ics, a ma­jor small­drone man­u­fac­turer. He’s since taken a job at Gopro, which sells tiny but ro­bust cam­eras that have be­come fa­vorite small-drone ac­ces­sories. Both com­pa­nies at­tract cus­tomers who have no prior ex­pe­ri­ence—or in­ter­est—in aviation. Says Lema: “I get a lot of peo­ple who say, ‘I don’t care about fly­ing. I just want to get my cam­era in the air.’ ”

To this day, some drone pi­lots still start with pri­vate in­struc­tion. Tay­lor Chien, who sells small drones through his com­pany, Drone­fly, in West­lake Vil­lage, Cal­i­for­nia, re­cently gave film di­rec­tor Steven Spiel­berg a per­sonal les­son. “He got it up in the air right away,” says Chien. In­creas­ingly, though, new­com­ers are turn­ing to the In­ter­net for in­struc­tion.

Par­rot’s three tu­to­ri­als for its Ar.drone 2.0, for ex­am­ple, have got­ten more than two mil­lion hits on Youtube. Mean­while, 18-year-old Korey Smith’s how-to-fly video has scored 112,160 views. But Smith, who builds his own drones, of­fers a piece of ad­vice not found on most cor­po­rate web­sites. “It’s not a ques­tion of are you go­ing to crash,” he says. “It’s a ques­tion of when you’re go­ing to crash.”

The po­ten­tial for dis­as­ter is one of the FAA’S ma­jor con­cerns as the agency con­sid­ers new reg­u­la­tions for UAVS. The goal, ob­vi­ously, is to safe­guard U.S. airspace and pro­tect peo­ple on the ground. But UAV op­er­a­tors ap­pear not to be wait­ing for the FAA to rule. Cheap, sim­ple to op­er­ate, and amaz­ingly use­ful, drones might fi­nally ful­fill that old dream—the sub­ject of en­dear­ingly buoy­ant ar­ti­cles in mag­a­zines such as Fly­ing and Pop­u­lar Sci­ence in decades past—of an air­plane in ev­ery Amer­i­can garage.

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