Robots take to the sky

An imminent plethora of UAVs, big and small, will have implications for existing and future users of the NAS.

In the air

This Grenzebach robot automates the loading and unloading of flight bags—the last remaining process in airport baggage handling. Six are in use at AMS (Schiphol, Amsterdam, Netherlands).

As unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) take over increasingly from human pilots for military operations, speculation is growing about civilian uses for robotic aircraft.

Thus far, FAA has been skeptical about allowing unmanned aircraft into US airspace, where safety still rests on the principle of "see and avoid." This is something UAVs inherently cannot do.

In 2009, FAA issued 146 certificates of authorization (COAs) for UAV operations—by late summer 2010, it had issued 268 COAs on 133 different aircraft types.

But UAV tests require meeting some burdensome provisions:

From FY 2006 through Jul 13, 2010, UAVs flew 5688 flight hours for US Customs & Border Protection. Their accident rate during that period was 52.7 per 100,000 flight hours—more than 7 times as high as the GA accident rate.

Nonetheless, the agency's aviation rulemaking committee, established in Apr 2008, is scheduled to publish a proposed rule for regulating small UAVs in the National Air Space (NAS) in 2011. This may well be just the first step in an extended regulatory process leading to the flight of passenger-carrying UAVs in the late 2020s.

Emptying the cockpit

Technologically, the pilotless airliner could be here much earlier. "What I am seeing is a gradual change where pilots are being 'assisted' more and more," says Universal Avionics COO Paul DeHerrera.

"For instance, the next step, instead of just warning the pilot in certain situations, would be to act. Systems already exist to autofeather a propeller blade should an engine fail, so why not put the gear down or try to reset a circuit breaker instead of just warning the pilot?"

Many airliners and Part 135 aircraft are already a long way toward independence from the pilot. Autoland systems handle nearly all parts of the landing process, and they could easily cope with the rest under any weather conditions.

And the fly-by-wire (FBW) system on Airbus models overrules pilot input to block pitching down below 15° or up into a stall, banking beyond 67°, or accelerating at more than 2.5 G. If Boeing's models are not quite that automated, the trend is still clear.

The pilot's authority just isn't what it used to be, and it will continue to shrink in the years ahead.

One key to the future is FAA's NextGen, which is already being installed and should be completed by 2025. For pilots, NextGen has 4 key components:

NextGen may not be the final answer to ATC, however. Europe's proposed Innovative Future Air Transport System (IFATS) would replace pilots with avionics, even in passenger-carrying aircraft.

The IFATS project envisions planes that can leave one airport gate, fly to their destination, land in a 15-kt crosswind and taxi to the arrival gate without human help. An onboard collision avoidance system would kick in if an aircraft outside the system's control approached too close or the ground datalink failed.

The automated controls would even be capable of landing the plane during an engine-out.
Under IFATS, aircraft are autonomous, but not entirely cut off from human control. For each plane, a ground-based pilot would oversee the system and take control of the airplane, much like today's military drone pilots, in case of emergency.

This could be critical for acceptance of automated flight, says General Atomics Vice Chairman Linden Blue. "I see automated remote flight controls replacing the 2nd pilot long before they replace both of them," he says.

"This would be in the interest of economics. With the new flight displays, dramatically reducing pilot workload and potential problems with situational awareness, the 2nd pilot is increasingly useless—unless the primary pilot has a health problem.

In this case, the airplane should be controllable from the ground or with an automatic program that would land it. The ground control might be like that which Predators have now."

Reason Foundation Dir of Transportation Policy Bob Poole agrees: "I think the logical next step is for 2-pilot cockpits to evolve to 1 pilot plus automation, including the ability for someone on the ground to take over if the pilot is incapacitated," he says.

"This will mean fewer flying jobs than there have been, but not necessarily fewer aircraft-control jobs overall, depending on the rate of continued aviation growth. Once superior productivity-increasing technology comes along, market-oriented societies are bound to adopt it."


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