Analyst: Navy Should Create Drone Operator Corps

The Navy’s current source of unmanned air vehicle pilots is its officer corps, mainly aviators who have received some on-the-job training or a course from a defense contractor on how to operate a drone.

As the service ramps up its use of UAVs and begins to fly more complex systems, it may want to start up a separate career track specifically for unmanned aerial vehicle operators, said Jay Stout, senior analyst at Northrop Grumman.

Using naval aviators “has worked okay up to this point. It’s been relatively satisfactory, but it’s inconsistent with the way the Navy has traditionally run a very formal, institutionalized, very rigorous training program for its aviation programs,” he said during a Aug. 12 workshop at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s Unmanned Systems conference in Washington, D.C.

There are several disadvantages to using naval aviators as drone pilots, Stout said. Training naval aviators is expensive, and but more importantly, transitioning pilots between manned and unmanned aircraft is inefficient.  When one considers that a naval aviator spends the first year of a UAV tour learning how to operate a drone and the backend of the tour getting ready to return to manned aircraft, it only leaves about a year of operations, he said.

By forming a distinct naval drone community, “you have a guaranteed institutional memory such that this set of career UAS officers can evolve [and] advance training issues, operational issues and technical issues,” Stout said.

Pilots “ideally would be excited and motivated about it, and they’re not going to be looking forward to getting back into the cockpit because they were never in the cockpit to begin with,” he added.

Stout believes a dedicated training pipeline for drone pilots could look very similar to a naval aviator’s career trajectory. One option is for naval UAS operator candidates to start with the same initial flight screening and aviation pre-flight indoctrination that naval aviators go through.

Instead of undergoing military flight training, which is expensive, drone pilots could get the Federal Aviation Administration’s instrument flight rules certificate, which certifies that a pilot can safely fly an aircraft by using only the instruments in its flight deck, rather than visual cues such as surrounding buildings.

“What that would do is make them familiar with the different classes of airspace, they’d get some air sense, they’d get an idea of what’s happening around them in the future as they operate those UAS,” Stout said. “Throughout the rest of their career, they would continue to maintain that IFR currency with an IFR license.”

After getting an instrument flight rules certification, the operator would specialize in an unmanned aerial system, he said.

Establishing a separate UAS training and career trajectory would cost money, Stout acknowledged. In order to draw applicants, Navy leaders would have to ensure that becoming a drone pilot is seen as an exciting and viable career choice.

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