It is definitely a deliberately provocative front cover heading designed to attract attention – ‘the rise of the drones’. The Air Force dislikes the term ‘drone’ mainly because of the media headlines about drone strikes taking out Taliban insurgents that imply that drones are autonomous robots, all-seeing omnipotent machines that find and destroy their targets without human input.
Instead the Air Force prefers the term ‘remotely-piloted aircraft’, or RPA, which has also been adopted by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. Certainly in the military context RPA is more accurate terminology than UAV or ‘unmanned aerial vehicle’.
It is true that military platforms like the MQ-9 Reaper (on our front cover) are unmanned aircraft in the sense that a pilot is not physically on-board the aircraft. But it is more accurate to say they are remotely-piloted, as the crew of a Reaper, comprising a pilot and sensor operator, flies the aircraft and makes all the decisions on the employment of its weapons and sensors, from the ground.
While autonomous aircraft may be on the horizon, for now at least UAVs are only unmanned in the sense that there is no-one physically in the aircraft. All decision-making is made by a trained human.
(Indeed, as we report in our feature elsewhere this issue, the RAAF”s director of unmanned systems calls RPAs “hyper-manned” because of the personnel requirements to operate a system capable of 24/7 ‘persistent’ operations.)
Where RPA is more of a misnomer is in the world of small drones that can be purchased by the general public. Yes, small drones are ‘piloted’ in the sense they are controlled by a pilot on the ground via remote control, but in the vast majority of cases best drone camera are flown by ‘pilots’ with nothing like the qualifications and aviation knowledge and understanding of a ‘pilot’ in a traditional manned aircraft.
And that’s an area of great concern and controversy. Anecdotally many professionals within the aviation industry, from pilots to air traffic controllers, hold grave concerns that it is only a matter of time before a small drone crashes into an airliner on approach or departing an airport, causing a potential disaster.
CASA faces the unenviable task of trying to regulate an area of aviation that is near impossible to properly control. Small drones are cheap and plentiful, all you need to own one is a credit card with a $1,000 balance, a few minutes shopping online at eBay or even Officeworks and voila, you’re a drone ‘pilot’. (We will know we have hit ‘peak drone’ when the drone you order online is delivered to your door by an Amazon.com delivery drone.)