Beckman Researchers Study Impact of UAVs

You probably have seen them on TV news reports soaring above war zones and remote areas. It won't be long, however, before unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can be spotted cruising the skies above the United States, performing tasks such as crop inspection, speeding checks and border surveillance.

Unmanned reconnaissance aircraft,
Predator B

Before that happens the FAA wants to know how unmanned aerial vehicle operators on the ground might perform when, as expected in a few years, UAVs start sharing air space with more traditional forms of aircraft. So they called on Chris Wickens and Jason McCarley of the Human Perception and Performance group at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.

Wickens and McCarley are faculty members at the University of Illinois' Institute of Aviation and experts on human factors aspects of pilot performance. The FAA has frequently sought the input of Wickens and the Aviation Research Laboratory he heads over the years on issues of pilot performance. McCarley, a 1999 Beckman Fellow and colleague of Wickens in the Human Factors Division at the Institute of Aviation, specializes in the areas of attention, visual cognition, and eye movements.

Their report, titled Human Factors Implications of UAVs in the National Airspace (PDF), was sent to the FAA in April of this year. The report is one step in laying the groundwork for a new form of aviation in airspace that is currently the domain of commercial, private, and governmental aircraft. The FAA's Web site makes it clear that UAVs will become a presence in the national airspace: "UAVs are a new, developing segment of the aviation industry. Some of the research and development activities they already perform support law enforcement, homeland security, firefighting, weather prediction and tracking. There are many other potential commercial applications just waiting to be taken advantage of."

McCarley said there are many potential uses for UAVs.

"Pretty soon we will see them in common use for things like agricultural data collection, border patrol, and security issues," he said. "Potentially, long term you could see long distance transport or for communications, stationing them for extended periods at some point, having them circle and relay communications."

While UAVs have been used extensively in war zones and other areas for security purposes, their presence in the national airspace will raise a number of issues. The FAA says its main concern with UAVs operating in civil airspace is safety: "It is critical that these vehicles don't come too close to aircraft carrying people or compromise the safety of anyone on the ground."

It was the job of McCarley and Wickens to study the available literature and data and look at human factors issues unique to UAVs, as well as automation concerns such as automated takeoff and landing. Wickens said the study showed him that more needs to be done in researching the impact of UAVs.

"My take on it is there are a whole lot of human factors issues that have not been addressed by research," Wickens said. "That is really what we were trying to do, to say what are the gaps in knowledge before these things are safe to fly in the mixed airspace along with commercial aviation and general aviation. There's an awful lot about (it that) we don't know, both for the pilots that are flying them from the ground, but also for the air traffic controllers that have to manage this mixture of airspace."

McCarley listed some of the specific issues their report raises.

"What can you do to enable the controller, who is located hundred or thousands of miles away, to detect conflicting traffic since you can't scan out the window as you would with a normal manned aircraft," McCarley said. "How do you detect something that's not there on your small field of view screen? How much should the task be automated or turned over to computers? How does it affect performance when one of those automated systems doesn't do exactly what it's supposed to do? How well does the human cope with that?"

These are all human factors issues that the two researchers have dealt with before - only with a completely different set of factors due to the operational nature of UAVs. McCarley said they found problems in certain areas of UAV operation.

"There are a lot of errors in switching between crews, handing off UAV control from one crew to another," McCarley said. "Takeoff and landing are also difficult, landing in particular because with the aircraft coming at you, you move the joystick one way and the vehicle moves the opposite direction."

Wickens said the larger human factors issue is the different path UAV development has taken from that of manned aircraft.

"Manned aircraft have been designed over an evolution of 60 years in which they've continually listened to pilots, done human factors analysis, and designed what's going to be the best cockpit from a human factors standpoint," Wickens said. "So they're pretty darn good. UAVs really weren't. Because people weren't on board maybe there was the sense that risks weren't as critical, or accidents weren't as critical. Certainly if you lose a UAV that's less serious than losing a pilot's life or an aircraft. So there wasn't as much of a human factors input into designing these workstations."

That approach won't work once UAVs join the national airspace. Wickens said he has interviewed Army UAV pilots who fly the Hunter and Shadow system used for surveillance.

"They say that most of the time it works like you expect but every now and then it's doing things you haven't programmed it to do," Wickens said. "If there's ice on the wings it doesn't maneuver the way it was supposed to, so the issue of unreliability becomes important."

And what does that occasional unreliability mean?

"Well it's a whole lot less than we demand out of manned aircraft," Wickens said.

McCarley said system reliability and pilot performance for UAVs can be improved.

"Certainly part of it will be establishing regulations, deciding who's qualified to fly them, making them safe, establishing standards for displays and interfaces," McCarley said. "I'm certain the technology will become better, the automation will become more reliable."

McCarley said the amount of pilot training required for a UAV controller would depend on the operating equipment. He said it could be a joystick and rudder like those used on airplanes or it could simply mean entering information into a computer for a vehicle with more automation features.

"They have to establish guidelines for who gets a pilot's license and where they are allowed to fly," McCarley said.

Whatever guidelines the FAA sets, McCarley expects to see more and more UAVs in the air before too long.

"There are going to be commercial pressures over the next few years to allow these more access (to the national air space)," he said. "They are kind of in a hurry to establish procedures and they want to figure out what the issues are so they can allocate resources appropriately."

McCarley is hoping more research is forthcoming to help prevent accidents involving UAVs.

"It's going to get a lot more attention if something like that happens, but with proper planning we hope to avoid that," he said.