How Drone Pilots Work

Elmer Sperry, inventor of the gyroscope, was tasked with creating an unmanned aerial vehicle that could deliver and detonate a warhead.

In 1898 the second version of Madison Square Garden was only 8 years old. There, on the shore of an indoor pond custom built for his purposes, the eccentric, brilliant inventor Nikola Tesla released a weird, metal boat and proceeded to make it zip around over the surface of the water. But how? Many of the stunned onlookers wondered if he was able to control the vehicle with his mind. In fact, Tesla was using radio waves to guide his invention, U.S. patent number 613,809 — arguably the world's first robot. Tesla's innovative use of radio waves to achieve remote control of a craft may legitimately be called the dawn of drone piloting [source: PBS].

The next step, of course, was to get that craft airborne.


The origins of drone piloting date back to the origin of airplanes themselves. The common denominator has been the military. The risks associated with surveillance, reconnaissance, bombing and fighting are so high that from the earliest days of air warfare, military strategists have been thinking of ways to get pilots out of the craft and safely on the ground.

During World War I, the inventor of the gyroscope, Elmer Ambrose Sperry, was contracted to develop a drone biplane for the Navy. Sperry and his son Lawrence assembled a team and began research and development on Long Island, New York. Their idea was to launch the unmanned aircraft with a catapult, pilot it remotely for 1,000 yards (914 meters) and then make the aircraft dive and detonate a warhead. Crash after crash followed as every attempt ended in failure. Finally, in March 1918, one of their planes flew the 1,000 yards (914 meters), dove on the selected target, recovered and landed. It was the first true drone. Or, as the experts like to say, it was the beginning of unmanned aerial systems [source: Barnhart].

The problem with early drones, like the one developed by Sperry, was that they were too unreliable for combat. While the U.S. Navy did evolve an attack drone that they deployed in the Pacific theater during World War II, most drones used by the military in the first half of the 20th century served as target practice for pilots-in-training [source: Barnhart].

During the Cold War era, more sophisticated drones began to be used for reconnaissance and surveillance. Today, more than 90 percent of extant drones are used for data gathering, whether by military, law enforcement or environmental monitoring agencies [source: Barnhart].


The Drone Pilot Spectrum

Hobbyist and commercial drone pilots can catch amazing images with their unmanned craft.
marekuliasz/iStock Editorial/Thinkstock

The U.S. military's use of drones to strike targets abroad has become highly controversial. Air Force drone pilots have been called "armchair killers," and the fact that a pilot can be sitting at a console in Nevada while pulling a trigger that kills people in Pakistan is found, by many people, to be unsettlingly remote and cold. But many, if not most, drone pilots are not actually directly engaged in making kill shots. Their job is to fly surveillance missions that gather data about potential threats all over the world.

One way or another, there's no getting around the fact that many of these soldiers wake up at home, drive a few minutes to their job site and then pilot expensive flying machines all over the world before going home for dinner. The job of the modern military drone pilot is a far cry from what we think of when we picture fighter pilots.


On the other end of the spectrum is the hobbyist drone pilot. Often self-taught, the hobbyist might even have built her own drone and taught herself to use it. Or, at least, that's the way it used to work. People have been making and flying model airplanes by remote control for many years, but with the advent of smartphone technology and cheap, off-the-shelf quadcopters equipped with cameras, the hobby of drone piloting has really taken off. Built-in drone cameras are motivating their pilots to take risks for great footage that the old-fashioned model airplane pilots rarely took.

The current rules are incomplete and in flux, but in general terms, you're not allowed to fly your drone above 400 feet (120 meters), you've got to be able to see it at all times and you have to keep it 5 miles (8 kilometers) away from local airports. Until February 2015, law enforcement officials had been issuing steep fines to hobbyist pilots who disobeyed these rules [source: Fitzpatrick].

Somewhere between the soldier and the hobbyist are the commercial pilots, many of whom have made businesses out of aerial photography and cinematography. The world of commercial drone piloting is rapidly growing, despite the fact that the new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidelines concerning commercial drones won't come into effect until 2017. We'll discuss this in more depth on the next page.

Finally, there's a potential fourth category of drone pilot — drones themselves. In theory it's possible to plot GPS coordinates and simply send a drone off to pilot itself to a destination. The major obstacle to this is, well, obstacles. You need pilots to man the monitor and keep a sharp eye out for impediments such as trees, power lines, tall buildings and other drones. But new miniature 3-D camera technology is already making it possible for drones to "see" obstacles in their path and take evasive action [source: Finley]. A future in which drones pilot themselves may not be far off.


Military Drone Pilots

U.S. military pilots in Las Vegas steer high-tech Predator drones -- complete with infrared camera, still camera and two missiles -- above Afghanistan.
Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images

Two young men sit in a dark, smelly room in the Nevada desert. They're looking at the image of a mud hut somewhere in Afghanistan. At their fingertips are the controls to a powerful, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that's hovering unseen in the skies high above the hut. They've been looking at this little house for hours, and nothing has moved except for a few goats. Finally, they're told that an intelligence source has determined there's an insurgent inside and they need to destroy the place. Placing a laser on the corner of the hut, they release a Hellfire missile from the UAV. A split second later they see something dart out of the house. Is it a kid? A dog? Then it's gone. The house is rubble, and whoever or whatever they saw is gone too. There's no mention of this darting figure in the official report, but the incident still haunts Senior Airman Brandon Bryant, one of the two men at the controls that day [source: Power].

In lightless, windowless boxes on Air Force bases around the country, people sit on chairs in regulation one-piece flight uniforms watching bright screen images transmitted from the other side of the world. These pilots control UAVs that patrol the skies over Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and other hot spots across the globe. More often than not the pilots are gathering data, but sometimes they're firing missiles at military targets. And they're at their posts for as long as 13 to 14 hours a day, six days in a row. On average, drone pilots fly their craft three times longer than conventional Air Force pilots spend aloft in their cockpits [source: Terkel].


Long hours, together with the strange disconnect between their immediate surroundings and the real-world consequences of their work, leads to a deadly combination of boredom and stress. And to top it all off, they get no respect. Teased by their peers for playing video games rather than flying, drone pilots are increasingly burnt out.

Recently, the Air Force has been having trouble recruiting new drone pilots to replace those who are retiring or quitting. The problem has reached such crisis proportions that Air Force Secretary Debra Lee James has publicly announced they are more than doubling incentive pay (to $1,500 per month). The Air Force needs more than 1,200 drone pilots, but as of January 2015 they had only 988 [source: Terkel].

Increasing the pay may not be enough. After six years of working as a drone warrior, Senior Airman Bryant left the Air Force, turning down a $109,000 bonus to keep flying [source: Power].


Drone Pilot Schooling

More than 300 U.S. institutions now have permits from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly UAVs for teaching and reseach purposes. Students might accumulate some debt in school, but they're likely to land high-paying jobs as soon as they get out.
Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Wavebreak Media/Thinkstock

Pick a disaster, any disaster. 9/11? Katrina? Fukushima? As rescue crews struggle through the rubble, miniature helicopters equipped with cameras zip up and down ruined buildings and in and out of wreckage too dangerous or difficult for humans to reach quickly. Use of robots like these has resulted in a nine-fold improvement in the performance of rescue teams at disaster sites. And the person you will often find at the controls for one of those helicopters is Dr. Robin Murphy. Founder of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University, Murphy is one of the leaders in the field of disaster relief robotics. Her CRASAR center has been directly involved in numerous disaster relief operations since its founding [source: CRASAR].

Murphy is also a teacher at A&M where she mentors graduate students through the school's computer science program. A&M is one of 358 U.S. public institutions, including 14 universities and colleges, that have an FAA permit to fly UAVs for the purposes of teaching and research. Some of them, including several community colleges, have drone pilot training programs, but only three schools offer degrees in the field: Kansas State University, the University of North Dakota and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. The programs don't just feature extensive flight simulation — at Embry-Riddle, for instance, students must also accumulate 13 credits in engineering to ensure they understand the drone system inside out [source: Raftery].


One recent graduate from the Kansas State program racked up $60,000 in student loans, but then immediately walked into a six-figure job with the military [source: Raftery]. While this graduate said he hopes to find work in the civilian market eventually, for now, the jobs are all with the military; there isn't really an official civilian drone pilot market yet.

Universities and other institutions are starting to offer training programs because they're expecting a massive boom in the use of commercial drones. In fact, everybody who knows anything about drones is anticipating this boom. They're just waiting for the FAA to make it legal.


The Future of Drone Pilots

Google and Amazon foresee a future that includes package-delivering drones.
Maciej Frolow/Photographer’s Choice/Getty Images

At the end of February 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lost a court battle that has important implications for commercial drone pilots. The judge in the case said the FAA could not yet regulate the use of drones without allowing the general public to have a comment period. This means that many of the $10,000 fines for operating without a permit have been reversed. Drone entrepreneurs can get back to business with pursuits like aerial photography for real estate companies and advertising firms [source: Kravets].

But they're still operating in a gray zone. The FAA has been working toward creating new regulations to govern drone technology, but their work isn't yet complete. On Feb. 15, 2015, the agency issued a proposal to let commercial drones under 55 pounds (25 kilograms) fly at will [source: Levin].


The proposal also dials back the anticipated requirements for drone pilots, who won't be forced to get a license. Instead, operators will have to pass a written test that demonstrates they have a basic understanding of aeronautical information, including airspace classifications, radio communication and emergency procedures [source: Fung]. But the actual regulations might not go into effect for another few years.

In the absence of official regulation, insurance companies have been drawing up their own rules to create policies that cover the proliferating use of commercial drones. Entrepreneurs who buy the insurance are operating on the time-honored assumption that you can't break rules that don't exist yet. Many are contracting themselves out for aerial photography, mapping and surveying. But people involved in drone flight anticipate a vast array of other applications from agricultural spraying to firefighting to ambulance services to parcel delivery [source: Levin].

Famously, online retail giant Amazon has already declared its intention of creating a drone delivery system that could see packages arriving on your doorstep within minutes of placing an order. Google has also jumped into the fray and is actively experimenting with a drone delivery system. The company anticipates a single pilot handling the flights of multiple drones at once. A European organization called Platform Unmanned Cargo Aircraft (PUCA) shares this vision and is working toward the deployment of large, slow-moving cargo drones that would deliver goods to isolated communities. PUCA proposes a single pilot controlling as many as 30 planes at a time [source: Madrigal].

In the meantime, a U.S. company called Skycatch, which uses drones to map sites for mining and construction companies, is building a list of pilots for its clients to hire. Called Workmode, the list already has 3,000 names on it, 1,000 of them in the U.S. Eventually, Skycatch wants to automate Workmode so it operates like an aerial version of Uber, allowing people to hire drone pilots for their various needs with their smartphones [source: Levin]. After all, it's unlikely that most people would need to actually own a personal UAV. But it seems like drones could fit quite naturally into the sharing economy.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Drone Pilots Work

When I was a kid I was convinced that by the time I grew up everybody would be driving hovercrafts. I never would have guessed that when we finally got around to creating working hovercrafts, drivers would be passé. As I see it, the basic problem is that we're too heavy to zip around in drones. The solution is obvious, we need to be lighter. Some futurists predict that we'll be able to download our consciousnesses into computer chips — why not just download to a drone? Maybe a transformer drone would be best — one that could reassemble itself into an ambulatory robot upon reaching its destination. Being a quadcopter could get old pretty quickly.

Related Articles

  • Barnhart, Richard K. et al. "Introduction to Unmanned Aircraft Systems." CRC Press. 2012. (April 25, 2015)
  • Chung, Emily. "Amazon tests delivery drones at a secret site in Canada — here's why." March 30, 2015. (April 24, 2015)
  • Cockburn, Andrew. "Long before drones, the U.S. tried to automate warfare during the Vietnam War." Business Insider. March 8, 2015. (April 25, 2015)
  • CRASAR. "Welcome to the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University." 2015. (April 28, 2015)
  • Downes, Larry. "What's Wrong with the FAA's New Drone Rules." Harvard Business Review. March 2, 2015. (April 24, 2015)
  • Droneflight. "Become a UAV Pilot." 2015. (April 24, 2015)
  • Fincher, Jonathan. "3D Robotics announces GPS-guided quadcopter for the masses." Gizmag. Aug. 27, 2013. (April 25, 2015)
  • Finley, Klint. "The Autopilot Tech That Could Be a Total Game-Changer for Drones." Wired. Jan. 9, 2015. (April 25, 2015)
  • Fitzpatrick, Alex. "Here's Why So Many Drone Pilots Are Getting in Trouble." Time Magazine. July 8, 2014. (April 26, 2015)
  • Fung, Brian. "The FAA's drone rules won't require a pilot's license, after all." The Washington Post. Feb. 15, 2015. (April 30, 2015)
  • Kravets, David. "After Recent Ruling, America's Commercial Drone Pilots Come Out of the Shadows." Wired. March 10, 2014. (April 21, 2015)
  • Levin, Alan. "Insurers Step Up for Drone Pilots Unwilling to Wait on FAA Rules." Bloomberg Business. March 6, 2015. (April 25, 2015)
  • Madrigal, Alexis. "Inside Google's Secret Drone-Delivery Program." Aug. 28, 2014. (April 25, 2015)
  • PBS. "Tesla: Life and Legacy – Race of Robots." (April 25, 2015)
  • Pilkington, Ed. "On the frontlines with U.S. drone pilots: a console but no video game." The Guardian. Sept. 30, 2014. (April 26, 2015)
  • Power, Matthew. "Confessions of a Drone Warrior." GQ Magazine. Oct. 23, 2013. (April 26, 2015)
  • Raftery, Isolde. "Anticipating domestic boom, colleges rev up drone piloting programs." NBC News. Jan. 29, 2013. (April 24, 2015)
  • Sifton, John. "A Brief History of Drones." The Nation. Feb. 7, 2012. (April 14, 2015)
  • Terkel, Amanda. "Air Force Worried No One Wants To Be A Drone Pilot." The Huffington Post. Jan. 16, 2015. (April 26, 2015)
  • Thompson, Mary. "Jobs for Drones Are Set to Take Off." NBC News. Feb. 6, 2015. (April 24, 2015)
  • Tice, Brian P. "Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: The Force Multiplier of the 1990s." Airpower Journal. Spring 1991. (April 14, 2015)
  • Winter, Jesse. "City man has high hopes for school for drone pilots." Winnipeg Free Press. Jan. 5, 2015. (April 24, 2015)