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U.S. Air Force via Medill

The U.S. Air Force currently requires fully qualified pilots to remotely operate unmanned drones -- the Army does not.

Unlicensed pilots operating drone aircraft in Illinois airspace

by Nolan Peterson
May 15, 2012

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The FAA said it has met a key congressional requirement to streamline the integration of unmanned drone aircraft, known as UAVs, into U.S. airspace by 2015 – allowing public agencies to operate drones with fewer restrictions.

The Illinois Army National Guard has already been operating its Shadow drone in Illinois airspace for six months, but Army regulations do not require certified pilots to remotely operate drones – leaving some aviation experts to question what training requirements should be expected of drone pilots now that their airframes share the sky with domestic commercial aviation.

Keith Mackey, an aviation safety consultant, has more than 30,000 hours of pilot flight time in aircraft such as the Boeing 747. He said remotely flying an aircraft can be a lot more difficult than manned flight, and real experience as a pilot is necessary for the safe operation of drones in domestic skies.

“I suggest that there is going to be a steep learning curve, with the real potential for accidents,” said Mackey, who has logged more than 6,000 hours as a flight instructor. “A lot of people not steeped in reality and without much experience in aviation are making decisions on paper that look like a good idea, but are probably not going to work.”

The FAA has not yet published its official regulations on domestic drone flights, and the announcement on Monday did not spell out what training should be required of drone pilots. But the aviation administration has already approved 63 U.S. launch sites for drone aircraft according to information released following a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation this year.

The FAA granted authorizations to operate drones in the U.S. to the military, Border and Customs Patrol, NASA and the FBI, as well as 25 colleges and universities and several small towns.

Congress ordered the FAA in February to create regulations within two years to integrate unmanned flight into U.S. airspace by 2015. The complete regulation is expected this year.

“The FAA’s sole mission and authority as it focuses on the integration of unmanned aircraft systems is safety,” the FAA said.

Until the FAA finalizes it’s regulations on unmanned flight, it is not clear what credentials should be necessary to fly drones.

Tracy Barrus, an insurance consultant for QBE International, was one of the first to draft requirements for insuring drone aircraft.

“We’re just as curious about what the FAA is going to do as anyone else,” Barrus said. “Right now the FAA makes requirements on an ad hoc basis, and in the cases I’ve seen, the training of the pilots has not been dealt with.”

Melanie Hinton, spokeswoman for the Association of Unmanned Systems International, said the AUVSI had no position on drone pilot requirements until the FAA released its regulations later this year.

“We support the FAA,” Hinton said.

In 2011 the Illinois Army National Guard received the first ever FAA waiver for the authorization of UAV training flights in U.S. airspace, and launched the debut flight of its Shadow Drone from Havana Regional Airport in Havana, Ill., on Oct. 15, 2011.

According to the Army, its UAV pilots are enlisted soldiers who enter UAV training straight out of basic training. The pilots spend the first nine weeks in common UAV courses before moving to training specific to the platform they will fly. Sixteen weeks later, they’re fully qualified UAV pilots. Army regulations state that unmanned aircraft operators are responsible for mission planning, sensor operations, payload operations, launching, remotely piloting and recovering the aerial vehicle.

Enlisted soldiers have been operating UAVs in war zones to track insurgents and fire on targets for nearly a decade, but with the push by Congress to open domestic airspace to UAV training flights by 2015, the lack of traditional aviation credentials by Army UAV operators has some experts nervous about the skill level of drone pilots.

Mackey, who is a trained aviation accident scene investigator, said, “You can’t fly a drone with the same precision as a manned aircraft -- it’s an order of magnitude harder.”

The U.S. Air Force currently requires fully qualified pilots to operate its UAVs. Pilots are usually chosen from highly selective fighter or bomber backgrounds and rotated into UAV flying assignments for two to three years.

The Air Force requires its corps of UAV pilots be experienced aviators, typically with backgrounds in airframes that deploy weapons. Air Force pilot training is a 52-week training program for officers that involves more than 200 hours of flight training in propeller and jet aircraft, as well as hundreds of hours of academic training. Pilots graduate with qualifications equivalent to civilian instrument, multi-engine, aerobatic and commercial pilot ratings.

The use of such expert personnel to pilot the Air Force’s drone fleet comes with a hefty price-tag. When pilots return to manned aircraft, requalification training costs roughly $700,000 according to a 2008 Rand Corp. report.

The Shadow drone operated by the Illinois National Guard can remain airborne for 5 hours and has a range of about 200 miles. The aircraft itself costs $700,000. Each UAV also carries a $600,000 onboard camera.

The FAA said that police, fire departments and other public agencies will be able to fly drones weighing up to 25 pounds without applying for special permissions required under previous regulations.

The FAA’s new application process can be completed over the Internet. It also allows for expedited approvals for time-sensitive emergencies, the FAA said on its website.

No requirements for training UAV pilots were included in Monday’s FAA announcement.

“UAVs were developed to save lives in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Mackey said. “It seems to me that now they are being used to save money.”