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During the last five years, the use of and uses for drones have increased exponentially. In this blog, we’ll trace the employment of drones in a number of industries.
While much of the current drone technology isn’t new, recent investments in both capital and technology have made drones a practical tool in a number of industries. The agricultural sector is one in which drone applications are on the rise. With the global population projected to reach about 9 billion by 2050 and agricultural consumption to increase by 70 per cent during the same period, the use of drones in agriculture has the potential of revolutionizing that sector of the economy. Such drones are high-tech systems which perform many tasks a farmer can’t, such as conducting soil scans, monitoring crop health, applying fertilizers and water, even tracking weather and estimating yields, as well as collecting and analyzing data. With the FAA currently streamlining regulations for agri-drone use, the market for such systems has the potential for approximately 80% of all drones produced, according to a recent study by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
A number of construction companies are exploring the possibilities of utilizing drones or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) in that industry. Drones have a number of roles in the construction industry: among them are marketing, surveying, inspection, progress reporting, safety and monitoring workers at multiple sites. In the survey role, drones allow contractors to get detailed information about a job site, as well as conditions on surrounding properties. While site surveyors are necessary in some situations, drones can perform essentially the same function at a fraction of the cost. In the realm of construction inspection, drones offer a high degree of flexibility. For example, drones can effectively scan the roof of a skyscraper, revealing any possible construction faults. They are also useful at sites such as tunnels and bridges, which may be inaccessible from the surrounding land. The contractor can even use the drone to compare the construction to the actual plans of a project. Drone photography can be utilized to show aerial views of a site from different angles to determine feasibility of construction. These photos can be sent to a number of potential contractors during the bid process. The same capability is also useful to show job progress to developers, who may not be able to visit the site on a regular basis. Finally, drones provide a means of monitoring the safety of workers at multiple sites, keeping the contractor informed of any safety issues on a real time basis, requiring a fraction of the manpower and cost of on site supervisors.
Drones also have potential in the commercial sector. For example, Wal Mart is currently utilizing drones comparable to those used in agriculture to scan warehouse inventory, checking for missing or misplaced items. Drones flying through a warehouse are able to complete an inventory in a day – a task that would take an on site warehouse crew a month. Though in its early stages, a few major companies are using drones for delivery purposes. Dominos Pizza began a delivery service in Britain, in which a drone was able to deliver two pizzas per trip. This service has the obvious advantage of avoiding traffic jams. In Philadelphia, a dry cleaning service is using drones to make emergency deliveries of laundry to customers. Though weight restrictions are a problem, they are capable of flying a freshly cleaned suit to a customer’s front door. The latest evolution is party drones, which fly over an outdoor party, playing prerecorded music.
While drones haven’t been adopted on a mass scale, they have increased the functionality of a number of key industries, breaking through the traditional barriers. From quick deliveries, to monitoring construction progress to agriculture, drones increase work efficiency and productivity, improving customer service, safety and security – with little or no manpower. According to a recent Price Waterhouse Coopers study, drone related activity provides an economic boost of more than $127 billion globally. With the relaxed FAA flight rules approved in 2016, drone operators have more flexibility from which to operate. As it becomes cheaper to develop industry-specific drones, subsidiary niche markets will emerge. A recent study indicates the use of commercial drones could add $82 billion and 100,000 jobs to the national economy by 2025 – not bad for a young industry.
The recent grounding of 128 planes of the Southwest Airline fleet along with a number of private aircraft accidents have placed a renewed emphasis on aircraft inspections. During the course of this blog, we will examine the inspection process, as well as the human factor.
While many processes in today’s aviation are performed electronically, the inspection of an aircraft is still largely done by visual observation. An aircraft inspection may range from a casual walk around the plane to a detailed inspection involving a complete removal of aircraft components, utilizing complex inspection aids. The first step of conducting an aircraft inspection involves collecting the required forms and reference materials from which to document the inspectionThe aircraft log books must be reviewed to provide background information and a maintenance history of the aircraftChecklists are utilized to ensure all items are included, appropriate to the scope of the inspection. Additional publications provided by the aircraft manufacturer and the Federal Aviation Administration are useful guides for inspection standards. Conceptually, aircraft inspections may be planned on either a flight hours or a calendar basisAircraft functioning under the flight hour system are inspected when a specified number of flight hours are accumulated. The flight hour system requires more documentation than the calendar inspection, as well as placing limits on the number of hours an aircraft may be flown. Different parts and operating systems on a plane may also have varying hour limits between inspections. The calendar inspection system establishes a regular interval between aircraft inspections, specifying a given number of weeks between each inspection. The calendar system is both simple and efficient, with scheduled replacement of components with hourly operating limits replaced on the date nearest the hourly limit.
The criteria governing the airworthiness of a plane is specified by the Code of Federal Regulations, which prescribes maintenance and flight operations standards. Title 14 of the CFR establishes the requirements for annual and 100 hour inspections. Private aircraft with less flying hours are subject to annual inspections while commercial planes must have a complete inspection every 100 hours. While both inspections are identical in detail, there a few differences. A certified air frame and power plant maintenance technician can perform a 100 hour inspection, while an annual must be performed by a certified air frame and power plant maintenance technician with inspection authorization. Also, the 100 hour inspections are more rigid in their maintenance schedules, allowing only a 10 hour overflight beyond the 100 hour limit to the inspection site. Since annual inspections may be quite extensive and detailed, the progressive inspection program was developed. The progressive inspection program divides the inspection process into four to six phases, the completion of which amounts to an annual inspection. Under the progressive program, an inspection phase is usually completed within a couple of days – minimizing the downtime of an aircraft. If the required phases are not completed within a twelve month period, the remaining phases must be completed before the end of the 12th month from when the first phase was completed. Owners and operators contemplating a progressive inspection program must submit a written request to the FAA Flight Standards District Office having jurisdiction over where the applicant is located.
No matter what type of inspection program an airline or operator utilizes, human error is always a factor. Historically, human error studies have emphasized flight crew performance with a more recent emphasis on air traffic controllers. Air safety studies have largely neglected human factor issues affecting the performance of aircraft maintenance personnel. This has been a serious oversight, since human error in aircraft maintenance has had an equally dramatic effect upon the safety of flight operations as pilot or air controller error. Both aircraft maintenance and inspection tasks can involve a variety of duties, creating an environment for error. Maintenance personnel frequently work under time pressures, especially in high traffic segments, in which the carrier seeks to maximize profits while minimizing aircraft turnaround times. Aircraft maintenance technicians are increasingly servicing fleets which are increasing in age, with many planes in service for over twenty years. These aircraft require an intense inspection regimen to detect signs of fatigue, corrosion and general deterioration. Concurrently, new technology aircraft are entering service with the world’s air fleets, with features such as composite materials, environmentally friendly engines and built-in diagnostic equipment. The need to maintain air fleets of multiple technology tiers will require both a highly skilled and educated technical force to meet present and future demands of the aviation industry.
When one makes the decision to become a pilot, they first realize how many hours and how many dollars are involved in order to complete the training – a regimen not everyone can sustain. During this blog, we will explore current employment trends for commercial pilots, as well as the underlying causes for pilot shortages.
When the Airline Deregulation Act passed in 1978, the government no longer controlled airline industry scheduling, staffing or fares. With the market saturated with new airlines, the industry now controlled who they hired and how much they paid them. The airline segment entered a period of intensified competition between existing airlines with new ones entering the market. While these conditions created an increased demand for commercial pilots, flight schools were able to keep pace with the demand due to the expansion of the national economy. This growth began to slow in the 1990s, with a number of airlines such as Precision, Atlantic, TWA and North American either being absorbed into another airline or leaving the industry, creating a surplus of available pilots.
On the heels of the airline consolidation of the 1990s came another event which brought a drastic impact upon the industry – the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. These attacks brought about enhanced security measures and related costs to be borne by the airlines, in addition to creating a climate of fear, which devastated the industry as a whole.
Financial considerations are another factor affecting the supply of pilots. The major airlines (those serving international routes) currently require a pilot to have a Bachelor’s degree along with completion of their Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate. The tuition required to complete both courses of study is easily in excess of $100,000, leaving entry level pilots saddled with debt for a number of years. To make matters worse, competition is keen for the relatively few openings at the major airlines, forcing many graduates to begin their careers working for the smaller regional airlines, subcontractors who operate smaller jets and turboprops on behalf of the major carriers. These airlines offer starting salaries in the $20,000 to $25,000 range, low by industry standards, with advancement to captain often taking at least five years. Pilot tuition further increased in 2013, to satisfy a new FAA requirement of 1,500 hrs. training for safety purposes. The previous requirement was 350 hrs. Starting salaries at the major carriers average between $35,000 to $40,000 per year. By comparison, a 2LT in the USAF, with flight pay and allowances, earns approximately $50,000 per year.
So, is there a current pilot shortage? Several criteria may be used to gauge current and future staffing levels. One indicator, additional air routes, would suggest a surplus of pilots in the near term. After 9/11, the airline industry went through a drastic reduction in staffing. While the industry has largely recovered from this, it has been a slow one with traffic still not at pre 9/11 levels. In 2012, Boeing conducted a study which forecast a need of 70,000 pilots by 2024. This is, in part, based upon a projected demand of new aircraft orders at an increase of 1.4% per year over the next decade. The results of this study are a mixed bag, suggesting a slow expansion at the major airlines with a corresponding reduction at the regionals. Flight school enrollment is another factor of pilot supply. While flight school enrollment has experienced a gradual decline over the last ten years, a recent General Accounting Office study indicated a demand of an additional 42,000 pilots between now and 2024. The study determined the projected pilot pool to be adequate to meet anticipated needs. However, the 1,500 hr. training requirement imposed by the FAA upon flight schools delays the certification of future pilots by an additional 12 to 18 mos., limiting the available pipeline of entry level pilots. The extension of mandatory retirement from age 60 to 65, approved by the FAA in 2007, will serve to reduce pilot attrition. This is partially offset by a reduction of former military pilots entering the airline force, which they believe has limited pay and growth potential. Furloughed pilots, whose positions were cut from their respective airlines due to unprofitable routes and other factors, are an ever present part of the pilot pool.
While the various studies and factors appear to offset one another, two problems remain certain. The cost of completing an Airline Transport Certificate coupled with a Bachelor’s degree now averages about $125,000, which could make an aviation career a domain of the wealthy. The other half of this problem is the relatively low starting salaries offered by the regional airlines. At the current levels, it takes entry level pilots ten years or more just to pay off the ATP training. Airlines and/or government assistance must be made available to insure the best qualified applicants serve as pilots. While the regional airlines have traditionally been stepping stones to careers with the majors, the regionals must seek to improve pay, benefits and overall working conditions to promote stability within their pilot force. A flight captain with ten or more years of service with the major airlines averages from $120,000 to $200,000 per year, the regionals about 60% of that. If these two problems can be addressed, we’ll not only have an adequate pilot supply but a highly capable one.
With the ongoing search for Flight 370, much attention has been focused on how such flights are monitored. During this blog, we will trace the history of flight recorders from their earliest days to the technology of today’s systems.
The earliest attempt to develop a practical flight recorder was the result of experiments conducted by two French engineers in 1939. This recorder utilized a photographic film media to record changes in the aircraft’s attitude, such as diving, climbing, banks, turns and other variances by a projected beam of light. Although the system was limited by changing film strips after each flight, it served as the forerunner for future research. The development of flight recorders received a low priority during World War II as a result of military technology applications. However, two British scientists produced a device in 1945 which used a copper foil to record flight data, with various styli indicating the application of various aircraft controls. This system was both more practical and survivable than the film device and was relatively crash-proof for its time.
By the 1950s, flight recorders were enclosing in fire-proof casings. While the foil recording media was believed to be indestructible at the time, several high-profile crashes of the BOAC Comet jetliner proved the media vulnerable to a crash. In 1965, the FAA mandated flight recorder boxes withstand a 1,000 g. crash, from the prior standard of 100 g. of the 1950s. Also during that year, cockpit flight recorders were mandated which recorded the last thirty minutes of flight crew conversation. Initially, two separate recorders were installed, but a large number of combination recorders became available within a few years. While flight recorder boxes were black, dating from the film technology days, they were mandated to be bright red/orange color beginning in 1965, to make them more visible to rescue crews. Recorder boxes also began to be located in the tail of an aircraft, as a result of a number of crash tests, which proved the speed of impact to be drastically reduced by the time it reached the tail of the plane.
Because of the limitations of the foil system, magnetic tape became available in the late 1960s, in which ever larger amounts of flight data could be more easily recorded and stored. In the 1970s, the magnetic tape system became enhanced by the application of digital technology, which increased the speed by which flight data could be retrieved. By 1990 all of the major airlines began to use solid state flight recorders. A solid state system is one in which data is stored in semiconductor memories or integrated circuits, rather than using the older technology of electromechanical data retention. The advantages of the solid state system were low maintenance costs, as well as speed of data retrieval and ease of storage. Within a few years, it may be possible to develop a solid state video flight recorder to monitor all flight crew activities from the start of a flight to its finish. While some in the aviation community may view this as an intrusion, others will be glad big brother is watching.
In 2001, two events occurred which shaped the military and law enforcement applications of UAVs( unmanned aerial vehicles), or more commonly called drones. The first event happened on April 1 of that year, in which a U.S. Navy EP-3A signals intelligence aircraft collided with a Chinese J-811 interceptor approximately seventy miles off the coast of Hainan Island. While the Chinese aircraft was destroyed, the EP-3A was able to land safely on Hainan Island with the crew eventually released and the plane shipped back to the U.S. in sections aboard a Russian freighter. On September 11, the World Trade Center towers were destroyed by terrorists crashing jetliners into the towers. Both situations underscored the need for an unmanned aircraft. In the case of the Hainan Island incident, a means of gathering signal intelligence without the vulnerabilities of having a crew forced down over hostile territory. In the September 11 case, a means of destroying and neutralizing the leadership of terror cells without direct military intervention.
While such aircraft have been successful in the war on terror, drones are being considered for use in domestic operations such as homeland security, disaster relief and law enforcement. Although relatively few drones are currently flown over U.S. soil, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) predicts that about 30,000 drones could be flown domestically within 20 years. Both members of Congress and the public have expressed concerns about privacy and other civil liberties. While ground-based law enforcement must have a search warrant to enter an individual’s residence, there is currently no such restriction for drones. This is because the airspace above a home is considered a public space. Two approaches under consideration to correct this are to obtain a search warrant detailing the specific use of the drone and the filing of a data collection sheet, stating the time, date and property to be photographed. Another aspect of this is previous court rulings allowing manned aircraft to collect evidence above a residence, in which a 1989 Supreme Court ruling allowed imagery of marijuana growing in a greenhouse taken by a helicopter. With drones getting ever smaller, nosy neighbors could pose a similar threat.
Drones are currently regulated by the FAA, which prohibits people from using them commercially and requires public institutions to apply for authorization to use them. However, all of this will change in 2015, when the agency is directed by Congress to open domestic skies to commercial drones, and to integrate the use of both manned and unmanned aircraft. Based on existing law, surveillance of an individual while in their home, using technology not in general public use, would be in violation of their rights without a search warrant. Perhaps the key factors are whether the drone was flying over a public place or private residence and was the search considered active (crime in progress) or continuous surveillance. While Congress has shown a willingness to debate the issue, much of the privacy battles may be fought at the local level, with each state developing standards for law enforcement use of drones and how to regulate the use of drones by individuals.