Aviation Week: How UAVs Will Change Aviation

There's a long but not very illuminating cover article in Aviation Week's Business and Commercial Aviation this month on how UAVs will change civil aviation.

Best bit: "At the Quad-A [Army Aviation Association of America] meeting [in mid-April] in Texas, Sikorsky announced a '2-1-0' pilot concept, where you could have a choice of two, one or no pilots aboard their helicopters," he said. That "public statement" is validating what many UAV insiders have known for some time, "that optionally piloted aircraft can fulfill these functions."
For example, Vos suggested, air taxi operators could potentially replace a copilot with automation and gain an extra fare seat — "a significant gain, a 33-percent seat-mile improvement in that you would go from three to four passengers in a five-seat airplane. In simplistic terms, you have within a domain of interest the ability to know every other airplane and what it is doing, and together with the proactive ATM and reactive anti-collision technology, it becomes safe to operate with automation."

I was amused by this paragraph

"In researching this report, we heard of studies by major cargo airlines involving optionally piloted freighters, supposedly crewed on transoceanic flights by a single pilot, or none at all. We queried Federal Express on the subject and received a friendly but dismissive response from corporate spokesman Jim McCluskey, who said, "I'm in touch with our research people all the time, and I've never heard anything like that." Nevertheless, he said, he'd run it up the executive chain of command to see what came back. In a follow-up conversation a few days later, his tone had changed somewhat. "I have an official statement from the company concerning alleged studies of minimally piloted or pilotless air freighters," he said. "'FedEx is always interested in new technology that will help us improve service to our customers, but we do not disclose the nature of our research.'"

Two weeks ago I interviewed FedEx CEO Fred Smith on stage in New York at the Wired Disruptive Business conference. We talked a lot about UAVs. He's been looking at them closely for years (this is no secret, so I don't know why Aviation Week didn't know about it). Last year we posted here on his thoughts about why UAVs, especially flying wings that aren't compromised for human safety and comfort, would be more efficient for FedEx, and at the conference this month he talked about the possibility of a FedEx someday flying formations of aircraft, like a flock of birds, with only the leading one being manned.

Is a flock of robotic cargo aircraft led by a single pilot a radical idea? Not really, he said. Think of it like a train: the lead car is manned, and all the others are unmanned. They're connected mechanically, and the aircraft would be connected electronically, but it's basically the same idea. It's simply the most efficient way to move cargo.

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Comment by Nima K on June 28, 2010 at 12:23am
I really like the "flock of birds" idea. With the correct shape, the trailing aircraft can gain a significant efficiency boost by riding the updraft of the wingtip vortexes of the leading aircraft. Having said that, I still think there's a long way to go until something like that, but it sure sounds exciting.

Comment by Krzysztof Bosak on June 28, 2010 at 1:57am
Now imagine that 3 out of 5 of the flock of birds are facing misconfiguration problem and due to mishandling and cold weather the earlier that month, their systems start losing control on the port wing. Have fun dealing with this, as the nearest airport is HongKong but it is 200nm from the airport, all wireless systems are out of range except several-s delayed satellite link, so the guys in headquaters cannot help with manual piloting, just observe scarce telemetry as 3 of the aircrafts head towards mainland China in 20km wide spirals.
Now suppose one of them recovers just as MIG21 that after catapulting the pilot over Polish part of Baltic Sea, somehow regained thrust and hit a house in Belgium.

Comment by Morli on June 28, 2010 at 3:40am
Scary thoughts....
Nima, not to sound pessimistic but tailgating even on road vehicle is a high skilled ability by human driver/pilot with only 2 axis variables. With all the axis being variables in a flying object ,tail gating will be almost impossible ( remember wind shear caused by earlier departed aircraft incidents) even with human pilot on board( yes air force does that all the time but those are hotgun pilots with extreme precision flying abilities) let alone in uavs. Flock of birds is Marvell of nature to watch . but birds are suppose to use 100% of their brains. Having said that, dreams start the road to places considered impossible and aviation history has shown us that. May be some day soon.. Good day guys.
Comment by Sylvain on August 21, 2010 at 2:45pm
To my knowledge, when an automated pilot system for in-flight refueling of jet airplanes was tested, it proved much more accurate at connecting it's probe to the tankers' drogue than highly trained 'meat' pilots.

Automated close formation flying seems very much possible with todays computers and sensors.

Comment by Krzysztof Bosak on August 21, 2010 at 3:29pm
Sylvain, All-automated flying of most passenger jest is also possible,
Even better, flying of american space shuttle is said to be possible remotely, except for extending the landing gear (one thing it is critical operation, others said it is piloting lobby, needless to say russian Buran made a full flight in auto several years ago).
Many things are better in automated mode, if things are typical.
Why there are still pilots?
Because human is so much better in anomalous situtations, he is so good at it is better to let him make small mistakes often just to keep him trained to avoid the big one.


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