For anyone hoping to earn a living as a professional aviator, a fair degree of flexibility is imperative for career success. Aviation is an extremely dynamic, cyclical industry; one that makes the concept of job security an elusive goal. However, significant changes in the aviation world are creating an entire new sector for pro pilot hopefuls; one that is likely to continue to grow for the foreseeable future. If you’re receptive to this emerging segment, now could be the perfect time to pursue employment as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operator.
What’s Old is New
Although I mention that UAVs are establishing a whole new sector for professional pilots, unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) have actually been around for several decades. While the concept/technology is nothing new, the job market is very much in its infancy. Until recently, UAS operations were strictly the domain of military and government entities. With time, certain operations spread to the civilian world; namely to the engineering/experimental sector for R&D. Civilian users mean civilian pilots, which signifies new opportunities for FAA-credentialed aviators.
Years ago, I heard that by the time many technologies are unveiled to the civilian world, the military’s already been using them for about a dozen years. If there’s even a hint of truth there, I’m feeling very optimistic about the opportunities to come to the civilian UAS world. As of 2008, the United States Air Force (USAF) utilized 5,331 UAVs – twice the number of its manned aircraft. In 2012, the Air Force trained more drone pilots than jet fighter pilots – something that had never been done before. See where this is going? If these trends continue and, better yet, spill over to the civilian world, drone pilots could have a very healthy job market from which to earn a living.
Why the Paradigm Shift?
You might wonder why the aviation industry seems to be migrating toward humanless aircraft operations. There are several reasons, though most can be summed up by two key concepts: safety and efficiency. Both are positive benefits that UASs can provide to a variety of aerial applications. Consider the following:
- Payload: By removing all the people, an aircraft’s useful load becomes much more efficient. With a UAV, virtually all onboard equipment contributes directly to the operation at hand. While you can argue that the pilot(s) bring skill, knowledge, and experience to the cockpit, in terms of weight & balance you’re little more than ballast. Additionally, no humans means no supplemental oxygen systems, seats, lavs, cockpit instruments, etc. This usually means the crafts can be built smaller than the person-occupied equivalent, which further contributes to fuel efficiency.
- Safety: Drones eliminate a number of possible emergency conditions. If you fly from a room/building on the ground, your life isn’t in imminent danger if a fire, powerplant failure or loss of pressurization requires an immediate landing in less-than-ideal terrain. If an unplanned landing is necessary, the small size of many drones greatly reduces the possible hazards to people and property on the ground. If physiological conditions develop, preventing you from piloting the aircraft, another pilot can usually take over in short order; something that often isn’t possible aboard manned aircraft.
- Autonomous Control: If you thought pilots were button pushers before, wait until you see what UAVs can do. These days, autonomous flight is the rule rather than the exception; meaning that, in many cases, the pilot serves as little more than an observer. Additionally, should a signal loss or other problem develop, the aircraft is programmed to fly a predetermined route. Despite the uncanny abilities of many autopilots, manned aircraft aren’t equipped to handle contingencies quite so independently.
A Word on Credentials
So, what does it take to secure a UAS pilot position? That is a very relevant question, but the answer can vary greatly from position to position. In any case, since you’ll be piloting an actual FAA-recognized aircraft (complete with an N number and an experimental airworthiness certificate), you’ll need an FAA pilot certificate. Since you’re expecting to be paid for your efforts, it’ll need to be either a commercial or ATP license. Additionally, you need to hold a 1st or 2nd class medical certificate, much like you’d need for any commercial flying position.
Take a look at a couple of UAS job sites and you’ll notice a few popular requirements. Several ads are seeking 500+ PIC hours, a B.S. or higher in a technical/engineering field, and a background as a test pilot or military aviator. Other common requirements include 7-9 years working in aerospace, prior UAV experience, and a background in radio-controlled aircraft and/or recreational UAVs. Since many commercial companies do contract work for the government, several postings require U.S. citizenship and the ability to obtain a government security clearance. As the UAS industry continues to develop, expect to see changes to required and desired credentials.
How to Prepare
As with a standard, manned aircraft pilot career, there are several ways you can prepare for UAV pilot employment. If you haven’t yet attended college, you might want to consider majoring in a technical field. Additionally, schools like the University of North Dakota (UND) are now offering degree programs in UAS operations and UAS research. Studying these programs directly will give you valuable experience and preparation for a UAS career. In addition, accredited schools like UND are bound to have several industry contacts, perhaps enabling you to secure an internship with a UAV operator. Such is an excellent way for a civilian to enter the UAV sector. However, I must advise against majoring in a UAV-specific program if you just want any type of flying job. If that’s the case, you’re better off studying something that truly interests you and pursuing the UAS avenue as one of many possible employment sectors.
On Uncle Sam’s Tab
If you are currently serving or are thinking about joining the military, doing so could keep you on the cutting edge of UAS technology. This is perhaps the best way to get hands-on experience in UAV operations – and on the government’s nickel to boot! As a caution, don’t join the military strictly for its UAV possibilities. Though you can always express UAVs as your area of interest, you’ll most likely be told what you’ll be doing, which is not always what you want. If you choose to join the armed forces, do so for more reasons than just a possible UAS education.
It’s the Network
Regardless of your specific background, probably the best action you can take is to network, network, and network some more. Let anyone and everyone know of your interest to work in UAVs. Subscribe to newsletters and websites on the UAS industry. Call and email potential employers. You might not meet their criteria today, but as UAS operations continue to expand, chances are good you’ll be able to secure a position in the near future.
Under current legislation, the FAA has until September 30, 2015 to incorporate UAV operations into the national airspace system (NAS). With this deadline as a reference, expect to see significant developments on the UAS front within the next few years. If recent trends are any indication, pilotless aircraft could offer incredible opportunities to pilot hopefuls in the very near future. In your search for pilot employment, don’t let the lack of a cockpit dissuade you from pursuing a possibly rewarding career as a UAV operator. With the right approach, the sky’s the limit – even if you never leave the ground.