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Coming to Terms: Operator
  • 29 Jun 2024 09:43 PM
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Coming to Terms: Operator

By Dan Newman
Vertiflite, July/August 2024

This series addresses the uses of terminology, expressions or idioms that could be misleading, confusing, unfavorable, erroneous or prejudicial. This installment addresses the term commonly used for the individual responsible for command and control of an uncrewed aircraft. (Above: Figure 1. Operator Off-Board Aircraft)

Uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS)—previously referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—have become commonplace in defense applications since the first widespread use by the US Navy of the RQ-2 Pioneer during the 1991 Gulf War. Over the past three decades, the substantial increases in capability of electronics, computing, sensors, electric machines and actuation, along with dramatic reductions in costs and size, have made drones ubiquitous for personal and commercial use.

At the outset of UAS, the human on the ground responsible for monitoring and controlling the aircraft was labeled an “operator” (fig. 1), to distinguish them from a “pilot” on-board a conventional crewed aircraft (fig. 2) responsible to “aviate, communicate and navigate.”

Figure 2. Pilot On-Board Aircraft
Figure 2. Pilot On-Board Aircraft

The key enabler for UAS was the capability of the aircraft to fly (keep the wings level) by itself, as the rate (bandwidth) of control inputs from a remote console was insufficient to keep the aircraft stable and control flight (aviate). Over time, the on-board capability of UAS have increased significantly, now performing much of the pilot’s three common tasks so the off-board operator now serves more as a mission manager, only tasking the aircraft and not actively managing any systems or subsystems. For small UAS, the operator has rarely, if ever, been provided real-time details on the status of aircraft systems, such as battery temperature or motor vibration.

So, at a high level, the aircraft is doing the flying, and it is appropriate to call the remote human an operator instead of a pilot.

But an item not addressed with UAS is the role of pilot-in-command (PIC). The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) definition is “the pilot responsible for the operation and safety of the aircraft during flight time,” though the strict legal definition of PIC may vary slightly from country to country.

ICAO Annex 2 says that the PIC “shall, whether manipulating the controls or not, be responsible for the operation of the aircraft in accordance with the rules of the air.”

This can apply to UAS, as well. The operator is the PIC, regardless of whether they are or not actually manipulating the controls at any given moment. So “operator” is an acceptable term for an off-board UAS manager, as long as it is understood that this role also serves as PIC. Note that modern aircraft are just as capable of performing these same pilot functions, even when the human is aboard. So, “operator” could also be appropriate even if crewed!

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