Going Back to School for Drone Pilot Training

There will be 10 000 commercial drones by 2018. They’ll need pilots

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

Looking to reboot your career? How about going back to school for an MBA, or video-game programming, or power engineering, or drone piloting?

Yep, NBC News reported recently that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration “predicts that 10 000 commercial drones will be operating in the U.S. within five years.” Camera drones alone are expected to be a [US] $5 billion industry.

All those drones are going to need pilots. And pilots are going to need training.

According to the report, there are three schools with undergraduate degrees in drone flying: Kansas State University, the University of North Dakota, and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, in Daytona Beach, Florida, where my guest today is a professor and serves as chairman of the department of aeronautical science.

[Nickolas] “Dan” Macchiarella has a Ph.D. in computing tech in education, and his research interests include virtual environments and augmented reality. He joins us today by the virtual environment of the telephone.

Dan, welcome to the podcast.

Dan Macchiarella: Hello, glad to be here.

Steven Cherry: So what is the new generation of civilian drone pilots going to be doing?

Dan Macchiarella: Well, they’re pretty varied. A lot of focus right now is on law enforcement, but there are many other possibilities. You know, for wildlife surveillance is one that I think is particularly interesting. Kenya has acquired a medium-sized system, and they’re using it to protect their endangered rhino herds.

Firefighting is another area that could be benefited. Yesterday in Florida, we had a large fire that shut down tracks of I-95. Unmanned systems could have been used to exactly determine the pattern of the fire and where to best have decision makers send firefighters out to minimize the damage.

There are other possibilities, providing security for companies and companies’ assets, patrolling highways, looking for stranded vehicles. I’m in Florida now, but in the past I’ve lived in snowy climates in places where blizzards can strand people on highways. So those are all, some good, some positive uses for unmanned systems.

Steven Cherry: So it seems like a mix of things done today by helicopter or small general aviation planes, and I guess some stuff that’s not done aeronautically at all. By the way, are we going to be calling them “pilots” or “drone operators” or what?

Dan Macchiarella: Well, drone is really a misnomer, but it’s what’s popular in the media, and so people readily think of an unmanned aerial system as a drone or a remotely piloted vehicle as a drone. So we don’t usually address whether the word drone is used or not. They will be pilots, and the vehicle’s aircraft systems are remotely piloted.

I believe that the FAA will ultimately create levels of certification somewhat like what the military has, and the lower levels of certification for the pilots will involve systems that stay closer to the ground and have limited ranges. And those pilots will not have all the aeronautical type of knowledge and skills that pilots of the larger systems will have. The larger systems will enter the national airspace system and have to de-conflict traffic, and those pilots will have to make decisions about their aircraft, so that type of skill set will be required.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, I want to get to some of that, but let’s talk about the training first. How is training for a drone different from regular pilot training?

Dan Macchiarella: Presence is the key. Remotely piloted vehicles or aircraft, the pilot doesn’t share the same environment as the aircraft. They’re located anywhere from hundreds to thousands of miles away, or several miles away, so the key to it is presence. If a pilot is on the other side of the world flying a vehicle, they have to mentally put themselves in that aircraft and fly it.

Steven Cherry: So I guess the training is done in simulators, right? But it’s kind of a weird situation, right? Because when you train for regular pilot training in a simulator, it’s very different from regular piloting. But when you’re training for drone operation, it’s basically the same, right?

Dan Macchiarella: It is. You’re right. Exactly. I always say that simulators, they don’t fly like aircraft, they fly like simulators, because with the motion bases or with the lack of motion, it’s there to induce the pilot to making the right decisions, taking the right actions, but it’s not really flight. It can never be flight. It can’t meet the rotational and translational rates that occur in flight. With UA, unmanned aerial systems, however, the simulator and the actual system are identical. There’s no difference. 

Steven Cherry: So is it a lot like playing a video game?

Dan Macchiarella: In many ways it is a lot like playing a video game, and that’s an area of research that I think that needs to be explored. You know, what are the skill sets—pilots that fly remotely piloted systems—what should they have? What kind of training background should they have?

Steven Cherry: So even before the research, what’s your sense of it? Are the best students the best video game players and vice versa?

Dan Macchiarella: Well, I would say that there’s a correlation between gaming and familiarity with those types of controls in flying remotely piloted vehicles. Where the two groups would diverge, if you had to compare gamers versus pure pilots, pure pilots, as they increase with their experience levels, have more knowledge of operating in the national airspace system. So remotely piloted vehicles are aircrafts, and they’re in the national airspace system ultimately, so they have to behave like aircrafts, whereas a gamer would have no knowledge or skills with that.

Steven Cherry: So what are the skies going to be like when they’re filled with drones?

Dan Macchiarella: Well, first of all, they’ll have to be safe because the FAA’s always focused on ensuring the safety of the public, whether they’re on the ground or in the air. So “sense and avoid” is a technological issue for unmanned systems as they enter the national airspace system. It’s easy to tell a pilot to do, you know, A, B, C, 1, 2, 3, and then the pilot processes those instructions, looks in the environment, maybe comes back and says, “No, that’s not going to work. Do something else.” When you have a remotely piloted vehicle, the pilot’s presence is not necessarily in that remotely piloted vehicle unless you can have a sensor suite or aerial mechanisms that allow them to kind of place themselves in a virtual sense.

Steven Cherry: So will air traffic controllers need special training?

Dan Macchiarella: I think air traffic controllers will have to understand the capabilities and limitations of unmanned systems, and then as a nation, the FAA will have to regulate the national airspace system. So maybe law enforcement unmanned aircraft systems will operate below a certain coordinating altitude, and then larger systems that are maybe performing relay of communication signals will operate above a certain altitude, and the FAA, the air traffic controllers, will have to understand where those systems operate. 

Steven Cherry: So who’s taking the drone classes right now? Is it students mainly focused on drones or mainly getting some experience with drones but expecting to be regular pilots?

Dan Macchiarella: Well, we have a mix. We have a bachelor of science in unmanned aircraft sciences, and that’s different than the engineers here that, you know, design and develop the system. These students are focused on flying, operating, and the business of unmanned systems. So they’re split. There’s a pilot track, and there’s an operations track. Those students in the pilot’s track also earn FAA certification and ratings for manned flight through the commercial and instrument levels, so they are real pilots for manned aircraft as well. And what we see from the career field is often, especially with some of the government agencies, that when they hire an unmanned aircraft systems pilot, that pilot also flies manned systems. And we have seen others, you know, some private enterprises, that hired unmanned pilots, and they didn’t fly manned systems at all. 

Steven Cherry: According to that NBC report, one student went straight from graduating from Embry Riddle to being deployed in Afghanistan with a salary of $140 000. Meanwhile, a starting commercial pilot might get as little as $20 000. A big part of that must be being in a war zone, but that’s a huge difference.

Dan Macchiarella: That is a huge difference, and I think that starting first officers should make a lot more money than they make. But one of the gentlemen that I work with said, heck, as a starting first officer, he would have paid somebody to let him fly. For the unmanned systems, the starting wages are higher, and if they deploy to a country like we just named, Afghanistan, or somewhere else, then there’s often a multiplier. So if that pilot made, I don’t know, pick easy numbers, $50 000 to start, and then they deployed, the multiplier was two, then they would get $100 000 while they were deployed.

Steven Cherry: So is any of that due to a shortage of drone pilots that we’re going to have for a while?

Dan Macchiarella: Yes, there’s a shortage of pilots, and the shortage should continue to grow even as some of the current conflicts draw down. By 2015, the FAA is supposed to complete implementation of integration of unmanned systems in the national airspace, and we believe that once that occurs, unmanned systems are going to start doing things that they hadn’t been doing previously: low-level law enforcement, specifically, quickly, and security, you know, helping provide security. 

Steven Cherry: We’re going to have self-driving cars soon. Why can’t drones fly themselves?

Dan Macchiarella: Well, in some cases they will be able to, especially if you look into the far future. Currently we send cargo to the International Space Station; it’s unmanned. One day, unmanned freighters may transition oceans and remote areas carrying cargo. The technology is there to do that, but where we get trouble is when that system has to deviate from something that is regular and normal. Computers aren’t very good at creating knowledge. They’re good at following instructions. Humans are good at creating knowledge. So if you put a human pilot into a complex situation and change a bunch of the variables, maybe that pilot will have to…Captain Sullenberger is a good example, you know, putting his aircraft safely into the Hudson. Who could have ever programmed a computer to hit a flock of geese and land in the Hudson? 

Steven Cherry: Commercial planes largely often fly themselves, but we seem kind of reluctant to take pilots out of the equation entirely. I wonder if remote control is really the future of commercial aviation as well, where pilots are either controlling the planes remotely or at least able to, sitting back and ready to.

Dan Macchiarella: Well, I think the possibility exists for automation based on available bandwidth for external pilots, to a combination of the two, could really reduce the size of human presence on the flight deck. I think there will always be a pilot on board, because the pilot can create new knowledge in situations that require it, and their ability to interact is not a function of bandwidth or satellite connection that can be lost. In my mind, when you’re carrying humans, there will always be a human pilot on board. There might not be two. On long overseas flights, often there are two, three, four. But with that remote presence creating a virtual pilot, I think that that possibility exists.

Steven Cherry: I guess for commuter hauls and short flights and freight flights as well.

Dan Macchiarella: Right.

Steven Cherry: There seem to be a lot of privacy concerns about civilian drones. We already have a lot of land-based police surveillance. We have CCTV cameras and GPS tracking and all sorts of things, but are there any special concerns about drones?

Dan Macchiarella: No. I think that our judicial system and legislative system will come up with some rules that allow the safe use of unmanned systems without invading the privacy of American citizens. You’re right. We have cameras everywhere: At red lights we have cameras. We have cameras that watch traffic flow here in our city. I really don’t know where that video goes or what they do with it other than send me a ticket occasionally. But with unmanned systems flying, as long as we structure a set of rules that define use that can be helpful and not invasive, I think that we’ll be okay.

Steven Cherry: Well, Dan, it’s going to be a big change in our culture—maybe not as big as self-driving cars, but pretty darn big. Thanks for joining us today and telling us about it.

Dan Macchiarella: You’re welcome, Steven. Thank you.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with professor Dan Macchiarella of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University about teaching the first generation of drone pilots.

For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 4 March 2013.
Segment producer: Barbara Finkelstein; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

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