For thousands of years, humans could only dream of flying through the air. Then, in the early 20th century, their dreams took off when manned flight finally became a reality. In the decades since, piloting of commercial and military aircraft has become a profession with many different specialties and objectives. But with the advent of fast and sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that can perform many of the same duties as manned aircraft, engineers and pilots in both the public and private sectors are beginning to wonder: is this the beginning of the end of manned flight?
The Impact of UAVs
While most people think that drones are a recent invention, unmanned flight dates back to World War I, when the British used unmanned aircraft to capture aerial photos of German trench positions in Europe. Over the decades, the technology continued to advance, until a major leap forward occurred in 1995 with the development of the Gnat, a remote-controlled glider with an embedded video camera that provided live video surveillance of terrain up to 60 miles away. In the early 2000s, weapon systems were incorporated into the design. This became known as the Predator drone and would go on to revolutionize modern warfare.
Compared to the investment in time and money that goes into training a human pilot, as well as hourly operating costs, UAVs can seem like a real bargain. And of course, there is the added benefit of eliminating the risk of losing a pilot during a mission.
As of 2016, the Department of Defense is spending more on training for UAV operators than on training for human pilots — a probable indicator of how military decision makers view the future of combat.
Is This the End of Manned Flight?
In the words of former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, “the F-35 should be, and almost certainly will be, the last manned strike-fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly.” So does this mean that UAVs are the future, and manned flight will become a thing of the past?
It’s not a simple yes or no situation. At present, UAVs and human pilots are working together, and it’s going to remain that way for years to come. The Navy has partnered with Georgia Tech to develop a specialized series of cognitive, personality and skill tests to identify and train drone pilots, similar to the Aviation Selection Test Battery (ASTB) for flight school candidates. There are no plans to eliminate the ASTB at this time, but it is likely that at least in the military, there will be an increase in the ratio of UAVs to manned aircraft in the near future.
A recent test conducted at China Lake, California demonstrates how manned aircraft and UAVs can work together to achieve mission success. In this test, three F/A-18s released swarms of “micro-drones” in mid-flight, testing how the miniature UAVs could coordinate movement with one another and follow orders. The results were impressive, with the swarm of over 100 micro-drones moving at high speeds in unison like a flock of birds.
In the near future, there will be a significant increase in the military use of UAVs, ranging from larger ones which may eventually replace certain manned aircraft, to swarms of disposable UAVs that can overwhelm enemy defenses. There is speculation that some sixth-generation fighters (expected to enter into service in the 2030s) will be UAVs themselves, while others could be piloted by humans while “herding” groups of UAVs to assist them in their mission. As more UAVs enter into service, greater priority will be placed on electronic warfare capabilities, as well as defenses against enemy electronic attacks and hacking.
But what about the private sector? Drones are being used for many industrial applications right now, but will UAVs replace pilots for passenger flight and air-based shipping as well?
A startup based in Richmond, CA thinks that for shipping, the answer is yes. Nautilus, Inc. is designing huge UAVs which can fly up to 200,000 pounds of cargo across the Pacific Ocean. These drones will fly slower than a piloted cargo plane, but much faster than a ship. The lack of a crew obviously saves money, and slower speeds save money on fuel as well. This could represent an exciting alternative for those who want faster shipping without breaking the bank. If successfully implemented, UAVs for airborne shipping could massively disrupt the shipping industry. A Hawaii-Los Angeles route is scheduled to be launched by 2019, and UAVs for trans-Pacific shipping could be ready by 2020.
In a recent collaboration with Booz Allen Hamilton and Kimley-Horn, Novel Engineering worked on a project to test the integratation of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) into airport facilities and runway inspections. Using drones to inspect the design and safety of infrastructures while gathering crucial data is a more effective and efficient means of collecting the necessary information to make improvements. Watch the video below to learn more:
As for passenger flights, it’s safe to say that this will take longer to get off the ground. Experimental passenger drones have been successfully tested, and with all the talk of self-driving cars, it’s not unreasonable to think that someday, self-driving aircraft could transport passengers as well. It’s really a matter of whether the technology can truly be made safe, and if society is ready to accept it. But for now, the era of manned flight is here to stay, and airliner pilots will have their job security for a long time.
With the rapid growth in the use of UAVs in both the military and private sectors, you’ll want to make sure you have the best firms working with you to come out ahead of the competition. Our team of experts provides systems engineering solutions as well hardware and software services to the aerospace industry, and design customized data acquisition and analysis solutions for airlines, MROs, IFEC providers and more. Come learn more about what we do and how we can help your company thrive as both manned and unmanned flight continues to evolve.