Robert W. Moorman examines the current level of training of civil drone pilots in the midst of FAA’s pending rule that will govern commercial operations.

The FAA’s proposed Small Unmanned Aerial Systems (SUAS) Rule governing U.S. civil and commercial operators (Part 107) is slated for release soon, but concerns from the training and safety communities on the complete lack of training requirements could delay the final rule’s release.

At the heart of the debate is the call by trainers and safety experts that FAA requires these drone pilots/operators learn some of the same standard core aviation skills required of pilots of fixed and rotary wing aircraft.

Looming Regulations

The proposed SUAS Rule would require civil and commercial drone operators be at least 17-years-old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test every two years, and be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Each drone governed under SUAS, which ranges in weight from .55 pound to 55 pounds, also must be registered with FAA. But that’s it. There is no ground or flight school training requirements.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), which represents the commercial side of the business primarily, is in the unenviable position of promoting the commercial potential of UAS and advocating for less draconian regulations for this sector of aviation.

“This rule is a good first step in establishing a regulatory framework around UAS,” Brian Wynne, president and CEO of AUVSI said. “But, as an industry, we understand UAS operations are constantly evolving along with the technology. As such, operators, who are seeking to fly UAS at higher altitudes and perform more expansive operations, may need additional training than what is currently proposed.”

In its comments to the FAA on the proposed rule, AUVSI called on the FAA to establish a “risk-based framework” to allow regulations to evolve as the technology does rather than regulating a specific vehicle or platform.

AUVSI is advocating a more extensive knowledge test be administered to operators seeking to fly in Class B, C, D, or E airspace. But what about mandating actual training? In a 2015 White Paper, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), International, said the FAA’s and AUVSI’s “Know Before You Fly” program is an excellent start for prospective UAS pilots, but a long-term solution is needed.

“ALPA is concerned about the lack of any required demonstration of proficiency for a prospective RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aircraft System) pilot,” stated the Association. RPAS pilots “must meet equivalent training, qualification and licensing requirements of pilots of manned aircraft in the same airspace.”

Reasoned Regulator

Several trainers to whom CAT spoke believe the FAA needs to be more of a reasoned regulator and less of a UAS industry enabler.

“If someone learns to fly a Cessna 150 or 172, there are some similar flying characteristics of comparably sized and powered propeller driven aircraft,” said Mark Blanks, Associate Director, Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership and Director, Virginia Tech UAS Test Site. “But when you go from a DJI Phantom to a [Insitu, a subsidiary of Boeing] Scan Eagle, it's like going from 150 to a 747,” said Blanks.

Before coming East, Blanks worked for Kansas State University, where he authored KSU’s critical comments on the pending SUAS Rule. Blanks runs the FAA test site at Virginia Tech, one of six designated to solve the bigger challenges of integrating UAS into various environments, including the ATC system.

Kansas State trains UAS pilots and provides courses in maintenance training and data analysis. Noted engineering school Virginia Tech does not provide UAS pilot training presently.

Learning stick-and rudder and related flying skills is only part of the training requirements regimen needed. “There are both flight and management skills that they [UAS pilots] need to learn,” said Ben Trapnell, Associate Professor Aeronautics (UAS Operations), John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, University of North Dakota. “There needs to be a lot of education and understanding of the environment in which a UAS pilot operates.”

Training on advanced UAS systems particularly is warranted, but some trainers understand the FAA’s less draconian approach to regulating UAS commercial operations.

“I think the FAA is trying to strike a balance and not being overly onerous on the UAS market,” said Andrew Shepherd, UAS Program Director for Sinclair Community College. (see sidebar). “It’s hard to sell someone on training when the training costs more than the aircraft. But eventually, the companies operating UAS will value additional training for the more professional platforms.”

UAS Training Programs

Meantime, several schools wait for the rule’s release before investing in a comprehensive UAS training program. North Carolina State University is one of those schools. “As far as training and medical requirements, proficiency testing or knowledge requirements, we are all in a wait-and-see mode,” said Kyle Snyder, Director, (Next Generation Air Transportation) NGAT-Center Institute for Transportation Research and Education, North Carolina State University.

Like other schools, NC State meets its requirements for flying UAS under the Public Certificates of Authorization (COA) and Exemption programs. It has yet to develop a UAS Operator training curriculum.

Embry Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) is another school that continues to study ways to develop a UAS-specific curriculum. ERAU Worldwide (and its virtual campuses around the globe) will not offer any UAS flight training until the final rule is published. “We have to examine the environment and see how the FAA wants this to be done,” said Brent A. Terwilliger, (Ph.D), Program Chair-Master of Science in Unmanned Systems, College of Aeronautics, Worldwide, ERAU. “We are looking at adapting managed flight practices to unmanned flight.” Some knowledge, skills and abilities can transfer from military to civil UAS Instruction, but “we can’t use it verbatim.”

ERAU’s Daytona Beach campus offers a simulator-based UAS training program; it does not as yet offer UAS flight training. The Daytona campus claims to have the largest UAS undergraduate degree program in the U.S. It also offers a Master degree in UAS Engineering. Core courses in the UAS program at the Daytona campus include introduction to UAS; simulation-based mission planning; policy; robotics and remote sensing courses.

“As far as a degree program, we want the students to be able to find varied jobs,” said John Robbins, Assistant Professor of Aeronautic Science at the Daytona campus. “It’s not just about pilots and sensor operators. We have graduates that go out and become flight test simulation engineers and project managers.”

Northwestern Michigan College, a community college, offers three academic UAS courses under the Aviation Department, headed by Alex Bloye, Director of Aviation. The courses are offered as part of the Engineering Technology Degree and as electives to Michigan State University’s Agricultural Sciences Degree.

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Nathan Bush launches the Puma small unmanned aircraft system by hand. New Mexico State University's Physical Science Laboratory recently completed tests to evaluate the safety of such aircraft during the day, at dusk and at night. (Photo by Sgt. Bobby J. Yarbrough) SEP14

NMU’s Introduction to UAS provides stick and rudder skills and overview of aircraft systems. UAS 1 deals with survey of regulations; advanced components, autopilot and flight plan development with multi-rotor platform. UAS 2 is an application-driven course that includes planning missions, aero-mapping, aero photography and advance systems. For flight training, NMC has two fixed-wing UAV Factory Penguin B and C models, Parrot EB fixed wing agriculture inspection flyers and an Aeryon Ranger quad copter. Additions

As for additions to the SUAS Rule, “I would support a practical exam,” said Bloye. “The exam needs to be performance based because of the numerous UAS out there.”

Ultimately insurance providers, not the FAA, could determine training requirements for UAS pilots and the companies for which they fly. Insurers will insist that training go above FAA’s minimum requirements, according to numerous trainers interviewed. Politics too could be a factor in the SUAS Rule. The public’s concern about possible collisions between commercial airliners and drones — based on reported close call incidents over the last few years — is influencing FAA policy because the public’s concern trumps everything, even though some of those near collisions have not been thoroughly investigated. In mid-May 2016, FAA announced it would explore ways to detect drones near commercial airports. Initial research will evaluate drone detection near John F. Kennedy International Airport. (An initial report that a drone struck a British Airways Airbus A320 on approach into Heathrow International Airport in mid-April was discounted by investigators).

To its credit, the FAA has specified distance limits for UAS operations near commercial airports. Recreational and commercial UAS operators cannot fly within five nautical miles of a public, towered airport with instrument approaches; three miles from a non-towered airport with instrument approach; and two miles from a non-towered airport with visual approach flight rules. Note: UASs can operate from commercial airports if an operator has a full Certificate of Waiver Authorization (COWA) that is specific to that airport. UAS operators also must file a NOTAM 24-hours prior to the flight.]

New Mexico State University (NMSU) has worked with the FAA on UAS integration into the National Air Space systems since 2007, and was the first UAS Flight Test Center in the US. When FAA Part 107 is published, “NMSU will modify its training to include all aspects of the regulation,” said Dennis “Zak” Zaklan, Deputy Director, UAS FTC New Mexico State University. “NMSU will then continue to perform research into pilot training for the specific requirements of the UAS type and the particular application of the mission.”

NMSU doesn’t have a UAS degree program, but has an aerospace engineering degree with a focus on UAS. Depending on the published Part 107, requirements, stipulations, and funding, NMSU may begin a formalized UAS piloting/engineering program, said Zaklan.

NMSU UAS FTC believes that basic flight skills for the UAS are important as not all skills from one type UAS translate to other platforms. “Helicopters have similarities to multi-rotor, but enough differences exist that some specific hands-on training should be required,” said Zaklan. “Same goes for the differences between fixed wing and VTOL.” Regardless of how the FAA rules, the potential commercial uses for UAS is enormous and includes: weather forecasting, scientific research, agricultural survey of crops, soils and livestock, wildfire surveillance, wildlife surveys, power line and pipeline surveys, industrial security and law enforcement, oil, gas and mineral exploration, search and rescue and aerial photography for real estate, construction, movie making and accident investigation.

The potential salaries for UAS pilots/operators are noteworthy. In its promotional materials, Phoenix, Arizona-based Unmanned Vehicle University, which offers a web-based ground school and UAS PC-based simulator flown program, plus two full days of hands-on flight training, claims that UAS pilots could make a top salary of $275,000 per year and an average annual salary of $104,000. Which, if true, could persuade a debt-ridden, newly minted professional pilot headed for a $35,000 initial job at a regional airline to change course.

(Sidebar)

Trend Setter Deb Norris got the idea of developing a national training and education center for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) near Dayton, Ohio in 2008 after returning from an economic trade mission to Israel. Israel is a pioneer in military UAS, better known as drones, and Norris thought that pilotless vehicles had commercial potential worldwide. During the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Israel used drones as decoys to activate enemy radar that were then destroyed by Israeli fighter aircraft.

There were practical reasons for creating a UAS center in Dayton and link it to Sinclair Community College. By 2008, National Cash Register (NCR), General Motors and Mead Paper had all left Dayton, taking hundreds of jobs with them. So new business and new ideas were sorely needed.

Norris pitched the idea to her boss, Sinclair president Steven Johnson and the board of directors the school’s UAS training and education center was launched. “Our vision was to focus on UAS training so we could be more responsive to the commercial market,” said Norris, senior vice president of Workforce Development. “We made a strategic decision to build a national training and education center, which would bring jobs and capabilities to Dayton.”

Helping matters was the close proximity of Wright Patterson Air Force Base, home to the Air Force Research Laboratory, which develops advanced materials for aircraft. Other colleges, universities and independent training houses recognized the potential commercial aspects of UAS. But Sinclair, the oldest community college in the US took the concept further by investing in the future before others did.

“We’re seeing market potential in various applications,” said Norris. Beyond line-of-sight uses are where the real potential and challenges exist, she added.

There are two sides to Sinclair’s UAS program. The main element tranche is the 62-credit hour Associate of Applied Science degree, which prepares students for entry-level positions in the UAS industry. The student gets a UAS certificate along with an Associate’s degree. Each student is required to take certain UAS core classes. The curriculum includes Introduction to Unmanned Aerial Systems, Air Traffic Control Communications and UAS Operations. (http://www.sinclair.edu/program/params/programCode/UAS-S-AAS) On the workforce training side, students, working already for a company typically, take courses that are often directly related to their jobs. (http://workforce.sinclair.edu/course-catalog/unmanned-aerial-systems/)

“We tend to tailor these courses to the specific company at which the student works,” said Andrew Shepherd (Ph.D.), UAS Program director. “We have partnerships with colleges and others around the country.”

Sinclair partners with UAS manufacturer Altavian, makers of the Galaxy R8400 helo-like drone. If an operator buys an Altavian drone, Sinclair provides training.

Enriching the students UAS experience is Sinclair’s GPS-enabled indoor flying pavilion with a 40-foot ceiling, which opened December 2015. There is also a wind tunnel on campus.

Sinclair’s UAS program is now at full-throttle and employers are at the gate, said the school’s leaders.