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Pay Attention: They Are Coming

November 1, 2016
By Corey Taylor


During a HAC committee meeting a few years ago, an associate member made a statement that, at the time, I found a little shocking and, I confess, a little insulting. The offending statement was along the lines of “as soon as drones are available, I will never have a pilot on a project.” At the time, it seemed to be the stuff of science fiction.

As a pilot, I assumed I would never see the day there would be a helicopter cockpit with no human element. Now that I drive a vehicle that stays in its own lane, brakes to maintain distance and has sensors that alert me if my accountant has failed to carry the one, I am far more attuned to such an eventuality. Anyone who doubts the day is coming will be rudely awakened in the not too distant future.

The principal impediment to drone use (or UAVs to be more precise) was initially the capability of the devices available. The technological rocket ship we’re on being what it is, the drones have advanced at seemingly light speed. I no longer doubt that a drone can do anything I can do with an aircraft. Whether it can do it as fast, as safely or as cheaply remains to be seen.

It’s certain a Bell 205 could be fitted with the sensors required to read the wind, and an autopilot that could react more quickly than I could. It’s certain that same aircraft could land safely in a confined area, at 7,000 feet in the Rockies, with 14 drillers onboard. What that might cost, and how long it will be before confidence has reached the point that 14 drillers would actually get on an unmanned aircraft remains to be seen. I suspect that legacy aircraft like the Bell mediums will be around for decades and the pilots flying them are safe and secure in their positions, because retrofitting that type of equipment, and the approvals required, are likely far more expensive than employing guys and gals that can do the job through sun, rain and snow. Other operations I am not so sure about.

Could a drone perform a pipeline patrol as well or better than a human? I have no doubt. Could a drone perform a powerline patrol as well or better than a human? I have my doubts that it could at all times, because a human usually directs the pilot based on what they see. Replace that lineman with sensors that can perform the same task, and a drone can definitely do the rest of the job. Can a drone move a diamond drill as well or better than a human? I believe so based on some technology I have seen, but I think the speed and efficiency is a few years off. Coupled with the need to move those drillers and other crews around the prospect, I think those jobs are safe for a while.

The jobs that are truly at risk are the tedious and repetitive ones that don’t involve many landings (i.e. starter jobs). The aforementioned pipeline patrols are on the list, but we should also think about airborne geophysical, LIDAR and the like. When seismic was booming a few years ago, clients tried drones for “data milking” from equipment on the ground, but a helicopter had to shadow the drone to keep it in sight of the operator, therefore negating any savings. Those requirements may be waived now, so when oil and gas exploration returns, some of our potential work may be unmanned.

So, with performance an issue of the past, safety and compliance are the remaining road blocks. When it comes to safety, nobody seems to be worried about whether a drone can do the task, instead the focus is usually on potential collisions with other aircraft. The numbers here are telling: according to a study by George Mason University, there are 27,000 commercial flights that take off each day in the U.S. alone. There are roughly 10 billion birds as potential obstacles (a few million small drones). The study concluded the chance of a bird strike causing injury or fatalities was one in one billion flight hours. Based on the number of drones, the potential market, the areas that drones would be working and other elements, they conclude an injury or fatality could occur every 187 million drone flight hours. I think the risk has been overstated by the media, which is clearly an understatement.

The real risk of drones is to our jobs as pilots and engineers. They are coming. So, the question is, what are you planning to do about it?

Corey Taylor began his aviation career in 1989 and has flown helicopters in some 20 countries while holding almost every position required by the regulations.– and some no one has ever heard of.