No-Pilot Aircraft Go Vertical & Hover

By Scott Spangler on February 14th, 2010

H-60_MtnsAt a fundamental level I understand the technology that makes no-pilot, remotely controlled aircraft work. And it seems to work well in fixed-wing aircraft that fly high in the controlled airspace (see UAV Pilot Shortage & Military Intelligence   and UND Plants Seeds of No-Pilot Airliners ). But down in the dirt and among the trees with the rotorheads, who must have 360-degree free-gimbal vision and hands and feet that play different instruments but must make precise music? No way.

Way. A billion bucks way. That’s what United Technologies is putting in Sikorsky Innovations, the effort to create a no-pilot H-60 Black Hawk and other projects to make helos fly faster, simulate vision, and monitor their own performance. The Houston Chronicle headline of the AP story was clear: Sikorsky Helicopter Will Need No Pilot.  

K-Max_slingload Kaman Aerospace and Lockheed-Martin beat them to it, according to an AP article in the Washington Post a week later: "Lockheed, Kaman Unmanned Helicopter Test a Success.” Fulfilling a Marine contract, the heavy-lift K-Max demonstrated programmed and remote-control flight, hovered at 12,000 feet, and delivered 3,000 pounds of cargo within the time limit. 

For an encore demonstration, with its four-hook carousel the unmanned K-MAX lifted loads with a combined weight of 3,450 pounds. On the single flight it delivered three of the four sling loads to preprogrammed delivery coordinates. A ground operator controlled the final delivery. 

Each demo mimicked the confined area challenges of Afghanistan. If technology can safely meet this challenge, say what you want, but it seems clear that the cockpit of the not too distant future will be a cubicle in some office building.

The article on the Sikorsky Innovations effort succinctly summarized what’s motivating UAV activity on all fronts: “Steven Zaloga, a senior analyst at Teal Group Corp. in Fairfax, Va., said unmanned aerial vehicles represent ‘one of the few dynamic markets’ in the aerospace industry hit hard in the recession.”

In its 2009 market survey, the Teal Group predicts the worldwide UAV market will be $62 billion over the next decade, growing from $4.4 billion a year to $8.7 billion. Naturally, the military will be the initial customer, but as they have since the brothers Wright first flew, military innovations soon become things civilians take for granted, like jet engines.

Bucle-Up People never welcome with open arms new ideas contrary to the status quo, which is why the feds  still spends millions trying to get people to buckle up when they get into their cars. Flying in no-pilot aircraft is no different, and whether we like it or not, it may become the norm, just like the seatbelts people buckle up 73 percent of the time.

Consider the safety benefits: cubicle cockpits could run like a factory or hospital, where one shift relieves another to provide round-the-clock coverage. Working a regular shift and living near the control center, pilots would not start work impaired by the dilatory effects of rotating shifts or lengthy cross-country commute. With corporate czars and bottom-line bean counters calling the shots, most likely a single pilot would remotely control one aircraft. To maintain safety’s checks and balances they would report to a manager called captain, to preserve tradition.

To pilots flying today, this future doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, and I’m right there with ya! Please don’t think that I’m promoting this cockpit cubicle future; I’m just sharing what I see on the horizon. It occurs to me that this change is really no different than the relocation of an airplane’s third wheel, from tail to nose, about a half century ago. Taildraggers called  nosewheel-pilots posers and lamented the certain decline in safety. How is that any different than moving the cockpit from the pointy end of the airplane to an office park off the airport? – Scott Spangler

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5 Responses to “No-Pilot Aircraft Go Vertical & Hover”

  1. Al Says:

    Airplane hijackers would be sorely disappointed if the “pilot” was unable to listen to their demands. Can’t you just see them beating on the cabin door and trying to talk in machine language to a black box that has no intention or ability to even understand? Of course they can always threaten the poor guy in the office that is controlling the plane, until we get rid of him as well.

    Now let’s get on with making our cars drive themselves to get the drunk out of the loop.

  2. Bill Says:

    When the datalink is down, and the $#!^ hits the fan (e.g., double hydraulic failure), you’re going to miss me being there.
    I wonder how well the remote pilot will be able to deal with the non-programmable items like weather deviations based on looking out the window and feeling the bumps, “see and avoid”, feeling unusual vibrations and sounds, etc.
    Will there be robotic flight attendants as well? :-)
    We should keep an eye on the remote surgery advances being made in the medical field for clues as to what will work and what won’t.

  3. Norman Says:

    You love this one don’t you Scott.

    Hot and High ops with helos are a great example of where UAV technology will prove valuable. Hearing that rotor droop warning whilst sitting with a heavy underslung load inside the dead man’s bubble is chilling isn’t it?

    Working in from the periphery is how the unmanned thing will almost certainly progress. Earth resources, comms links, surveillance and perhaps freighting are tasks well suited to UAVs. The tide has to come in a long way for transport aircraft to carry humans around in any number though, a long way…

    I ain’t King Canute but enthusiasm was never a sufficiently powerful motivation to advance a technology, it takes vested interests and a bottom line result to do that. The cash resources required to launch full scale automated passenger carriers will be colossal. I think it might even be a step comparable to supersonic flight – It’s possible, BUT… the payback still isn’t quite visible on the horizon.

    Just another opinion.

  4. Scott Says:

    My words telling of todays accomplishments of unmanned aerial vehicles and systemsand their possible future applicationsare not the cheerleaders chants of assured victory. Rather they are the feeble warnings of a coalmine canary who senses the end of sustaining breaths embodied as meaningful work for aviators.

    As a species, we humans are woefully shortsighted, a condition that has only gotten worse as the industrial revolution has evolved into one of technology. Just because we can doesnt mean we should, at least not without comprehensive forward thinking. Replacing human effort with machines has its place, but the important question is whether it benefits the manyor a select few.

    As our population grows ever larger, what is the point of replacing skilled human effort with that of machines, other than to make more money for corporate czars and bottom-line bean counters, and the shareholders they work for? Will the day of reckoning come with the realization that the under and unemployed masses can no long afford the revolutions rewards?

  5. abith hussain Says:

    can passenger aeroplane be controlled without pilot in emergency situation

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