Wildfires and Drones Don’t Mix

On 29/07/2015, in UAS, by steve

Responding to recent incidents in which unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), also known as “drones,” interfered with manned aircraft involved in wildland firefighting operations, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is supporting the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Forest Service in their simple message to drone operators: If you fly; we can’t.

fire

“Flying a drone near aerial firefighting aircraft doesn’t just pose a hazard to the pilots,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “When aircraft are grounded because an unmanned aircraft is in the vicinity, lives are put at greater risk.”

Often a temporary flight restriction (TFR) is put in place around wildfires to protect firefighting aircraft. No one other than the agencies involved in the firefighting effort can fly any manned or unmanned aircraft in such a TFR. Anyone who violates a TFR and endangers the safety of manned aircraft could be subject to civil and/or criminal penalties. Even if there is no TFR, operating a UAS could still pose a hazard to firefighting aircraft and would violate Federal Aviation Regulations.

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Are Air Traffic Controllers Passé?

On 19/07/2015, in ATC world, by steve

Well, not quite… not yet anyway. But it is a profession that can expect to face major changes in the coming decades.

disruptDuring the definition phase of SESAR I was the “owner”, on behalf of the airline group, of the concept of operations we were developing under the expert guidance of a colleague from KLM. The airlines were pushing hard to have the concept of free flight included. In case you are not familiar with this concept, let me just say that in free flight the responsibility for providing separation is transferred to the pilot. We do have something like this in traditional ATC also when, for instance, an aircraft is instructed to cross a level “maintaining own separation and VMC”. In free flight this is the normal operating mode and not only in VMC.

Controllers were long of two minds about free flight. Some saw this as a natural development, others as a threat to their jobs. Some controller unions embraced this second stance and in the SESAR work back then it were the latter we had to contend with.

At a certain point in time I was asked to make a presentation at a meeting attended also by controller representatives, explaining what the benefits of free flight were as seen by the airlines. It was interesting by the way that pilots and pilot unions were not generally opposed to free flight. Somehow they felt (I presume) that this was the kind of paradigm change that would help make their operations more efficient and hence help their companies survive.

Anyway, I made my presentation making extensive use of the excellent free-flight related material available from the Dutch NLR. Obviously, the whole thing was in the early research phase but the results were not only encouraging but totally convincing also. To us, dreamers anyway.

The controllers were not impressed, nor were we expecting them to be. One of them went so far as to actually inform me that what I was saying was nuts (he used a less polite word by the way).

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Automation – NOT an option, an inevitability

On 02/07/2015, in ATC world, by steve

For many years, theses on automation in both the air traffic management and the cockpit context used expressions like “human in the loop”, “human centered”, “human the final decision maker” and so on. Air traffic control and pilot unions liked these expressions because they saw in them an assurance that their jobs would be preserved also in the future. For automation experts the very same expressions sent a different message: you are only allowed to build systems that are limited to what the humans can do. This is a very serious limitation but luckily we are finally about to round a corner beyond which a completely new world beckons.

We have all heard and read about UAS, an acronym that stands for Unmanned Aerial Systems. Sometimes they are called RPAS (Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems). Whatever the name, it refers to a new type of aircraft which does not have a pilot on board. Commonly referred to as “drones”, these aircraft fly with the “driver” on the ground, often thousands of miles away. They can accomplish many types of missions from seeking out and neutralizing bad guys through border patrol and checking oil pipelines. It is easy to see that integrating such operations with the civil air traffic management system is a task that needs some thought.

But the real disruptive development comes when UAS start to fly with no pilot involved at all. Autonomous UAS… Don’t think that these are small, innocent vehicles. If people like the box shifters have their way, we will have wide-body cargo planes flying as autonomous UAS in the 2030-2050 time frame. By aviation development standards, that is tomorrow, so it is probably a good idea to have a closer look to what such a disruptive technology really means for pilots and air traffic controllers.

What is driving these developments?

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