ROBOTICS AND AUTONOMOUS SYSTEMS
Civilian, Military Pilots See Unmanned Aircraft as Undisputed Future of Aviation
GRAND FORKS, N.D. — In both military and civilian aviation, pilots interested in the future of flight are placing their bets on unmanned aircraft.
The trend toward military and commercial applications of remotely piloted aircraft is readily apparent at two institutions that define Grand Forks, N.D., its university and Air Force base. Both are leading the push to rebrand unmanned systems as beneficial tools that should not be feared but embraced.
Students at North Dakota University’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences are receiving instruction in both the manned and unmanned worlds. They graduate with a civil pilot’s license and a major in UAS studies.
Andrew Regenhard, a UAS studies senior, said he grew up wanting to fly airplanes and loves to be in the cockpit. He also recognizes the future importance and practical application of unmanned systems.
“We understand aerodynamics. We had to take all of those courses. So to apply those skills to the development of unmanned aircraft systems … helps out a lot,” Regenhard said. “We are pilots and some of us want to become career pilots, so a lot of us want to eventually be the pilot of an unmanned aircraft. There are going to be so many opportunities in unmanned aircraft once the FAA allows unmanned in the airspace. I think it’s going to blossom and skyrocket.”
Aaron Gabrielson said graduates in UAS research, education and training will be in high demand when the Federal Aviation Administration gives the all-clear for UAS in national airspace. Trained civil and military pilots will be valuable resources in that effort.
“I want to get that experience being a pilot, so that moving up in my career, I understand what the basic problems are with aerodynamics and flight,” he said during a Nov. 12 tour of the school. “For instance, you need a pilot to help design the control station for unmanned aircraft, so it’s easy to fly.”
A few miles away at Grand Forks Air Force Base, Col. Lawrence Spinetta evangelizes for the continued and expanded use of unmanned aircraft for reconnaissance and other military applications.
A former fighter jock, Spinetta jumped on the unmanned bandwagon. He now commands the 69th reconnaissance group, which is responsible for all of the Air Force’s RQ-4 Global Hawk operations.
“I’m an Air Force academy graduate who flew the F-15 for a long, long time and then I raised my hand because I saw that the future of aviation is unequivocally going to be unmanned aircraft,” he said.
He served as a Predator squadron commander at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., before taking the Global Hawk yolk, which are actually capable of autonomous takeoff and landing and are operated with a computer keyboard and mouse.
“Everybody is proud of every aircraft they fly, but for me I look at what the future of aviation should be and will be,” Spinetta said. “It was a ton of fun flying the Eagle, don’t get me wrong — flying upside down, pulling 9 Gs. But I look at what provides the most utility for our war fighters.”
There are institutional speed bumps in the adoption of unmanned aircraft and the realization that for many missions, the lack of a pilot on board is a strength, Spinetta said. Armed versions used in countries like Yemen and Pakistan should not shroud their basic utility in warfare, he said. There is simply no manned aircraft that can replicate the 28-hour endurance of a Global Hawk, for instance.
“There are some cultural obstacles and barriers that need to be overcome,” he said. "Any large organization, any bureaucracy, will not necessarily embracing of new technology. The technology is absolutely amazing. To be able to sit at Creech Air Force Base in Las Vegas or Grand Forks, North Dakota, and project air power 7,000 nautical miles away … is amazing. That’s what strategists have done for millennia: project power while minimizing vulnerability.”
When the North Dakota Air National Guard switched from F-16 fighters to the MQ-9 Predator, there was little institutional resistance, said Bob Becklund, director of the Northern Plains Unmanned Systems Authority and a former Guard F-16 pilot.
“When we made that conversion, we had 35 F-16 pilots and only lost four of them. Some retired but when we made the conversion, we only lost four,” he said. “Those were just young guys that aren’t done pulling G [forces] yet.”
As with the military, UND students who have chosen the unmanned track have had to overcome the stigma that unmanned aircraft exist to fire missiles and spy through bedroom windows. Zach Waller, who is earning a masters degree in unmanned systems, said media reports have burned the word “drone” into the public psyche.
“Early on in the degree program, we stress that drones were an accurate descriptor for a different piece of technology that was used for target practice,” he said. “This is no longer what they are being used for. People love that term, though we are trying to slowly correct them. The FAA uses UAS in their designations, so that’s what I call them.”
When Regenhard tells friends he is studying, building and flying unmanned aircraft, they assume he is in the military. His mother, a staunch opponent of the use of drones for targeted killings, used to send him newspaper clippings about their offensive uses in Afghanistan and other conflicts. But now she understands that he studies more benign — and often potentially beneficial — applications for unmanned systems.
“The word ‘drone’ is kind of demoralizing. When you Google drone or unmanned aircraft, most of the time, you see a photo of a Predator with Hellfire missiles on it,” Regenhard said.
“Getting them in the [national] airspace is the biggest thing” so that applications like finding missing persons or mapping agricultural fields will gain a higher profile, he added.
Ryan Walsh, a former Air Force aircraft engineer who is a junior at NDU studying unmanned systems, went one further on the issue of what to call the technology. He contended that referring to them as “unmanned” is problematic. He prefers remotely piloted aircraft, or RPA. The Air Force is in the midst of a rebranding campaign to retire the word drone in favor of RPA, as well. The Association of
Unmanned Vehicle Systems International is also attempting to dismiss the common use of “drone.” At its annual conference earlier in 2013, the password for the media WiFi signal was “Don’t Say Drone.”
Regenhard agreed that calling RPAs "unmanned" was misleading. Even small RPAs have at least one person in control of the flight at some point. Larger aircraft like the Air Force’s Global Hawk have dozens of people behind every mission, including a pilot, sensor operator, data analysts, mechanics and electronic engineers.
“It is not unmanned,” he said. “Every single time you’re going to have some type of operator. Just because the pilot isn’t on the aircraft, doesn’t mean it’s unmanned. … There is still a lot of control over the aircraft even if it is considered unmanned.”