Have you noticed the non-existence of pilots in a growing fleet of air vehicles? If you have not been fully aware, or recent initiatives related to Drones or Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAV) have passed you by; then let us tell you of the exponential growth in use of unmanned air machines, especially in military operations, but already with incursions in civil environments, taking advantage of more recent technological innovations.
If the military first noticed the added value of this option (less human losses, performance not limited by the physical capability of pilots, miniaturization, etc.) the civilian uses are not far behind. A very specialized industry, lead by Israel and the United States, have already performed innumerable flights, remotely piloted, whose object was the gathering of information, patrolling, establishment of advanced aerial control platforms, air-land attacks and even air-air combats.
Much more demanding functions than those expected in non-military activity, civilian uses envisaged include remote detection (photography and aerial thermography, geophysics), meteorological monitoring, air towing, traffic patrol, rescue - and transportation, obviously.
The UAV industry envisages cargo transportation by airships, then by helicopters and tiltrotors. In airplanes, remote piloting is planned to permit the extension of pilot?s flight time limits and consequent crew reductions. The logical extension is the first non-piloted cargo flights, and time and the acceptance of Passenger will take care of the rest.
We all know that the question is not of technological capability. We also remember that in the beginning of the last century, nobody would get into a lift without a "pilot". So, is it possible that what happened to the Radio Operators, the Navigators, and the Flight Engineers, could happen to the pilots? Or is it already happening? What will be the role of those professionals that we today call "pilots" in driving/management of future air vehicles? What kind of instruction and competences do we need to develop to retain the value of this profession to the Industry of Air Transport?
Are those who "control" UAVs, pilots? We answer no, and effectively they don't do what today we understand as the pilot's role. Nonetheless they are taking part of our role as a new function somewhere between pilots, flight controllers and commercial managers. Shouldn't we welcome them as members of our associations? Wouldn't that be an intelligent response to accompany their evolution and defend our interests?
The challenge is here. In the next ECA Conference we will develop this issue, until then I invite you to produce papers on this theme: The impact of UAVs on the Industry of Air Transport and consequences for Professional Pilots. Pilots will always exist, but maybe doing a different thing.
João Moutinho, ECA Board Director, Technical Affairs