As the number of small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) and operators continue to grow exponentially, the safe and efficient incorporation of this technology into the National Airspace System (NAS) will be essential. It will be the responsibility of regulatory agencies, operators, and manufacturers to ensure this process is completed properly. As an important element of this integration, new training procedures and programs will need to be developed in order to meet this growing need. This paper will address the current lack of sUAS designed specifically and deliberately to serve as a training system for both new and experienced sUAS operators. It will provide evidence that as system technologies have advanced, it has created an overreliance on intelligent flight modes, and it will also provide recommendations for future operational configurations of current systems that could help resolve this growing issue.
Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Training System
While early applications of small unmanned aircraft systems were limited to military or large scale industrial and agricultural operations, recent advances in this emerging technology have made them far more accessible to the general public. In terms of affordability, price points of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) systems are reasonable enough that anyone from photographers to emergency responders and anyone in between can purchase a capable “drone” for only a few hundred U.S. dollars (“How Much is a Drone?”, 2019). Not only is it easier for the average person to have access to these systems, the degree of automation that is integrated within them has made it possible for an inexperienced user to conduct advanced operations at high altitudes or large distances with minimal to no training.
One of the most important features that many sUAS have adopted to ensure even beginners can operate the systems without much difficulty is “smart mode” technology. Integrated flight control programs like this allow amateur operators to “capture shots that would once have required practice and training with just a few taps of your finger” (DJI Intelligent Flight Modes; DJI, 2021). These programs provide close to fully-autonomous flight, from takeoff to landing. Although this does eliminate many barriers to entry for those that wish to get involved with this emerging technology, it also creates a growing problem for the industry. According to numerous studies by several universities, the main concept of “see and avoid” that the industry has relied on for operational safety has proven to be mostly ineffective in preventing incidents and accidents (Moore, 2019).
One of the main causes of civil sUAS accidents and incidents is from operator error in the event of abnormal flight conditions (Wild et al, 2016). This has been partially attributed to how the number of sUAS operators and aircraft have been growing exponentially over the last few years, but access to and completion of quality training on their use has been severely lacking (Snow, 2019). The result is an expanding number of sUAS operators that while they may be excellent at configuring flights utilizing advanced “smart” features, they have little to no experience or training when flight environments are less than perfect or in the event of an inflight emergency. Scenarios such as loss of GPS guidance, ground control signal loss, or inflight malfunction can wreak havoc on even certificated remote pilots that only studied what they needed to pass the FAA’s knowledge test have minimal hands on training.
Skills Gap Among sUAS Operators
This growing gap of training and skills is not entirely the fault of the operators. It will be the responsibility of pilots, system manufacturers, and regulatory agencies to ensure the safe integration of this technology into our National Airspace System. Currently, there is no sUAS platform specifically developed for training purposes. Although there are some that are popular for beginners, none have been designed or configured to meet the unique challenges and requirements of comprehensive, hands-on flight training. Most training programs and new operators have to start with a low-cost platform with minimal capabilities and slowly work their way up to more advanced models as their training and budget allow. The problem is that if a new operator wanted to train on an industry standard platform for commercial uses, they have to invest in a higher end system that they can not practice many manual inflight maneuvers or emergency scenarios without running the risk of damaging their expensive investment (“Hands-On Drone Training”, 2020). This creates an unsafe, heavy reliance on automated flight modes, and a growing skills gap among sUAS operators.
Training Aircraft and Control System
One possible solution will be to develop a sUAS designed specifically for operational safety and training. Although there are already unmanned platforms that serve as trainer roles, they could benefit greatly from significant configurational changes or adaptations since it is not a role they were specifically designed for. This new configuration would utilize an existing unmanned platform such as the Anafi developed by Parrot. This is an affordable, stable platform that could be easily adapted to serve new roles (Pavic, 2018).
Since a primary market for this new configuration will be U.S. government organizations and agencies, it will be important for this system to be developed by a domestic or approved friendly nation manufacturer to address the Pentagon’s blacklist of some foreign manufacturers and its limited list of approved companies fit for government contracts (Reim, 2020).
Overall, this adaptation will incorporate many existing technologies and apply them together to serve the missions as a consciously designed UAS for training programs such as user-friendly controls and long duration battery life. Structural features to protect the aircraft in the event of incidents caused by inexperienced operators, and even programs that allow for simulated inflight emergencies would also be extremely beneficial for a training aircraft to incorporate into its design. As the number of commercially available training programs start to grow along with this industry, it will become increasingly more important that they have access to this type of system for their students to ensure they receive comprehensive, safe flight training.
Ensuring this aircraft and accompanying ground control station (GCS) remain affordable for both individual operators and the agencies that employ them will be crucial. Their price point must be low enough to encourage their use over the standard market drones, but still maintain all of the specialized and customized features that make the system uniquely suited to fill its role as a training aircraft. For this reason, it will be helpful for the developer to maintain a purchasing agreement with an established UAS manufacturer that allows them to acquire a base airframe from a COTS system at a low enough cost to enable follow on customization.
One such airframe platform is the Anafi developed by Parrot. Since Parrot has been selected by the U.S. Defense Innovations Unit as a major supplier for American government agencies, it minimizes the risk of a system not being utilized or permitted for military or other public agency use (Parrot Selected by the U.S. Defense, 2020). Another key aspect of this airframe is its durability. The Anafi’s airframe and body is composed of a carbon fiber reinforced polyamide combined with glass beads to lighten its weight and has passed a rigorous set of quality control durability tests (Pavic, 2018). As a training aircraft, it will be exposed to risks of crashing and other harsh flight conditions by inexperienced operators and must be able to withstand these events to a reasonable degree.
Power and Propulsion
The Parrot Anafi currently utilizes a quadrotor design powered by a two-cell high density lithium polymer battery capable of an estimated 25 minutes of flight time under normal conditions (Parrot, 2021). During training scenarios, it will be important that the aircraft is able to remain airborne for as long as possible. One possible modification would be to replace the standard battery with a slightly larger one that can improve flight time without adding an excessive amount of weight to the aircraft.
The four brushless motors of its propulsions subsystem allow the Anafi to maintain horizontal speeds of 15 meters per second in level flight, and 4 meters per second of vertical speed at full power (Goldman, 2018). This propulsion performance provides everything a training aircraft would need in terms of speed and maneuverability and would therefore not require much modification. As a safety and durability improvement, removable propeller guards should be added to the airframe during most training scenarios to protect people, property, and the aircraft in the event of an incident.
The Anafi was originally designed as an imaging platform and so comes standard with a high quality imagery payload with a suite of advanced sensors for collision avoidance and automated flight modes. It currently employs a Sony IMX230 1/2.4 inch camera sensor capable of filming 4K HDR video at 30 frames per second and snapping 21 megapixel still images (Kesteloo, 2020). As a training aircraft, the modified Anafi will not need to be capable of high quality imaging. This presents a crucial opportunity to minimize one of the most expensive elements of most commercial UAS. By downgrading the imaging sensor to one that only films up to 1080p quality for example, the overall cost of the platform could be reduced from the current retail price of $699 USD by several hundred dollars (“How Much is a Drone?”, 2019).
This system also comes standard with a suite various sensors that allow the Anafi to maintain a high degree of autonomy when it comes to preprogrammed flight and obstacle avoidance. Since a primary focus of the training programs the modified platform is designed for will be on the manual manipulation of flight controls, these sensors can be reduced or removed. By doing so, developers could further reduce the costs associated with this new configuration while also providing more payload capacity for improved batteries.
Command and Control
The ground control station (GCS) Parrot designed to manipulate the system’s command and control (C2) is already designed with beginners in mind. This makes it an excellent GCS for a training UAS. Parrot advertises the controller as intuitive and user friendly, and requires minimal training in order to operate it. It features an Ambarella H22 processor and integrated GPS tracking. The FreeFlight 6 software built into the GCS and the aircraft gathers the combined data from the aircraft’s onboard sensors and instruments to provide altitude, position, and other telemetry data to the operator on the ground (Parrot, 2021).
This covers most of the technical needs of a training aircraft, which means that the only necessary operational reconfigurations would be to develop software programs that allow for simulated inflight emergencies and other abnormal flight conditions to be practiced in controlled environments and under the supervision of trained instructors. This would allow both new and inexperienced operators to gain valuable experience identifying hazardous flight conditions. It would also provide them with practical hands-on experience with how to appropriately react and recover from them to ensure safety of flight. It would also provide opportunities to demonstrate how effective risk management and aeronautical decision making can limit and minimize hazards to the aircraft, operators, as well as surrounding property and people in the event of an unrecoverable emergency scenario.
The aeronautical domain is inherently dynamic. As an aerial system, this modified platform faces many of the traditional risks and limitations faced by other aircraft both manned and unmanned. Changing weather patterns, turbulent winds, precipitation, variable temperatures, and icing conditions can all wreak havoc on an aircraft when operating in these conditions is not properly planned for and the risk is not managed appropriately (Wolf, 2017).
Proper risk management in aviation has as much to do with decisions made on the ground as it does with aeronautical decision making while systems are airborne. Training programs must include procedures on “Go, No-Go” decision making when assessing weather and other environmental conditions. This will be especially important during this system’s use, as its primary role will be in training environments. In order to be confident that UAS operators are performing missions safely and efficiently, they must be trained properly on how to navigate the risks associated with flight operations.
Regulatory and Legal Considerations
The U.S. National Airspace System is one of the busiest, most complex, and highly regulated in the world (Hamilton et al, 2017). This presents many unique regulatory and legal challenges for UAS that many other unmanned systems to do not need to maneuver. Various types of airspace and clearances, altitude restrictions, weather minimum requirements, aircraft registrations, and commercial versus recreational operations are just a few hurdles that these systems and their operators must face. For an experienced airman, these are complex. For a new UAS owner, they can easily become overwhelming. As new operators begin to flood the airspace, less will be aviation professionals and more will be operators with a limited knowledge of the airspace above their heads. As a result, it will become increasingly more important for initial and recurrent training programs and procedures to effectively prepare operators for this complex environment while also safely and efficiently integrating unmanned aircraft into the NAS (Rupprecht, 2015).
In recent years the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has made many recent improvements regarding UAS and their safe integrations into the NAS including the final rules on Remote ID requirements, night operations, and flight over people and moving vehicles. With this rapidly evolving regulatory environment, a UAS purposely built for training must be able to adapt and scale to meet these new requirements in order to be successful.
Integration of sUAS into the global airspace is inevitable. As the total number of these systems increases it becomes even more important that a safe and effective plan for integration is implemented soon. Additionally, as the autonomous technology integrated into these systems becomes even more advanced to relieve operator workload, an overreliance on these intelligent flight modes can produce dangerous hazards for both equipment and people. In order to avoid these issues, a part of the solution will be to dedicate time, money, and thought into developing new training programs equipped with the appropriate technology (Pilot Training Recommendations, 2016).
As presented here, it will not be essential to develop an entirely brand new aircraft and ground control system to meet the needs of sUAS training and education programs. Currently available COTS systems provide a strong framework for operational configurations that can adapt to their new role. This includes improved battery life, structural improvements to increase system survivability in the event of a crash, and integrated software feature that could simulate a wide variety of inflight emergencies for training and educational purposes.
The rollout of new FAA policies regarding UAS integration on a regular basis means its even more important now to develop comprehensive training programs with the appropriate equipment. With the planned implementation of the FAA’s Recreational UAS Safety Test (TRUST), formal training will soon be required of all UAS operators regardless of whether they plan to fly commercially or recreationally (Aeronautical Knowledge and Safety Test, 2021).
The use of UAS is not just the future of aviation, it is the future of many different industries including transportation, agriculture, intelligence, filmmaking, as well as commerce and consumer delivery services to name a few (Frost & Sullivan, 2016). It will be the combined responsibility of manufacturers, regulatory agencies, and individual operators to ensure the safe and effective integration of this emerging technology to the existing infrastructure. While the development of a system configured specifically for operator training and safety is an important step, it will not be sufficient on its own. In order to be successful, it must be utilized in conjunction with new training programs and procedures that are updated regularly as regulatory policies are updated and the technology advances.
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