Human Test Pilots Still Rule in Age of Drones
Test pilot Carol Ferris (Blake Lively) flies alongside Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), who later turns superhero as the Green Lantern.
CREDIT: Warner Bros/DC Comics
With robotic drones taking on more and more roles in aerial combat, it seems like the age of death-defying test pilots — the likes of which inspired the creation of the original Green Lantern — may be at an end. Instead, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) demand a new kind of test pilot; the new pilot may be less glamorous than his or her daredevil predecessors, but is more intellectual.
The real U.S. Air Force recently graduated its first official drone test pilot along with several pilots who also have experience flying remotely piloted aircraft (RPA). Such cross-training on both unmanned and manned aircraft is becoming increasingly common for military test pilots as more powerful drones fly alongside manned fighter jets and bombers.
"Usually, test pilots are Renaissance men and women who have a number of interests as befits someone intellectually curious," said Col. Noel Zamot, commandant of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. "It turns out that personality is what we need as we move forward into the future of unmanned aerial vehicles and aircraft. In the future, we're going to have an arsenal that's going to have a mix of all these types of weapons systems, Having someone familiar with all those systems will be valuable."
The missing pilot
Not having a human test pilot aboard makes more difference than one might think. Human test pilots can notice odd vibrations, engine sounds or changes in wind noise while sitting in the cockpit of an aircraft. On the ground, drone operators must rely on strings of data from sensors aboard unmanned aircraft.
All of those in-person observations add up to a certain pilot awareness that is hard to replicate when testing drones, said Ryan Olson, a project engineer for UAV simulation development at the National Test Pilot School. Early drone testing suffered because people didn't realize how much such direct experience mattered.
"You don't get that seat-of-the-pants feel that something isn't right," Olson told InnovationNewsDaily. "You definitely rely more on flight engineers and personnel on ground observing different parameters and trying to interpret what it means in real time."
Some partial fixes can help, such as installing audio that provides the noises from aboard the drone. But that still requires an experienced test pilot who knows how to interpret such sounds and other cues from an aircraft.
Testing drones big and small
Robotic drones don't risk taking down a human pilot if they crash, and some may seem as harmless as a radio-controlled (RC) toy. In many tests, the lack of danger to humans can encourage riskier attitudes toward flight testing.
"There's definitely a different mindset than with manned aircraft regarding safety and risk," Olson said. "Drones are less expensive than fighter type aircraft, so there's a willingness to push forward the program."
Even without a mindset more willing to risk a machine than a man, unmanned test planes are more prone to catastrophic failure simply because the diversity of UAV types makes it harder to work out the kinks. Drones range in size from hand-launched scouts weighing a few ounces to aircraftlike behemoths weighing tens of thousands of pounds. That variety can mean wildly different unmanned flight testing standards among companies that build drones.
However, in addition to producing a steep learning curve, the increasing complexity and cost of UAVs also raises the financial risk of testing robot planes. The expense of bigger drones, such as the missile-armed Reaper and the camera-laden Global Hawk, have led the U.S. military and defense companies to raise flight testing standards closer to those for manned aircraft.
"As we progress, unmanned vehicles are getting more and more expensive," said Gregory Lewis, director of the civilian National Test Pilot School in Mojave, Calif. "The penalty for failure is more significant and may transform flight testing [for drones]."
The future of flight tests
For now, many smaller companies that build drones still rely on people such as RC enthusiasts rather than trained test pilots, Olson said. But the civilian National Test Pilot School offers a short unmanned aerial vehicle course that is affordable for such companies and gives insight into how they can do more rigorous flight testing.
The growing number of military test pilots with drone flight testing experience may also add to the pool of talent that the private sector can draw upon. Both of the top two graduates in the latest class of U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School have had extensive flight time with drones.
One of them is Capt. Nicholas "Hammer" Helms, who has become the first graduate to specialize as a drone pilot. He used to fly F-16s, and also flew the same manned aircraft as his classmates during Test Pilot School. Besides graduating near the top of his class, he won an award as the most operationally focused pilot who reminded classmates about the importance of getting missions done right.
His example, along with others, suggests that future test pilots aim to maintain standards regardless of what they fly. However, as UAVs get smaller and smarter, not every robotic plane will need a test pilot. The specific instances that require the skills of someone such as Helms remain in flux.
″If I have a hummingbird-size drone, will I send a guy from flight testing school to test that?" Zamot said. "I'm not sure. If I have an unmanned B-2 [stealth bomber] follow-on drone, do I need to flight-test that? Absolutely."
This story was provided by InnovationNewsDaily, a sister site to TechNewsDaily. You can follow InnovationNewsDaily senior writer Jeremy Hsu on Twitter @ScienceHsu. Follow InnovationNewsDaily on Twitter @News_Innovation, or on Facebook.