Airline Pilots Could Fill in as Drone Operators

Prime Time for Drones?

Key Takeaways

  • Amazon won federal approval to operate its fleet of Prime Air delivery drones.
  • Airline personnel who are trained to high safety standards could help drone delivery companies in their quest to prevent accidents.
  • The skills used in passenger aviation easily translate into drone delivery.
Amazon Prime Air Drone
Amazon

As passenger airlines face cutbacks due to coronavirus, the growing drone delivery business could offer a lifeline to some crew members, while making sure our drone-delivery future is as safe as possible.

The drone delivery business is expected to grow rapidly as companies from Amazon to UPS enter into the field. But while drone delivery is still in a testing phase, the increasing number of unmanned vehicles in the sky is raising safety concerns. Delivery drones are larger and heavier than the hobbyist versions and could pose a risk to people and property if they crash or hit a manned airplane.

“Manned aircraft pilots and personnel have a lot to give to the industry,” said Tony Pucciarella, President of MissionGO, a drone delivery company, in a phone interview. “They bring a background in safety and performance that will be absolutely necessary as we expand.” 

Drone Deliveries Flying Ahead

On Monday, Amazon won federal approval to operate its fleet of Prime Air delivery drones. The move means Amazon will be able to proceed with testing its unmanned vehicles, although the company has yet to announce its exact schedule for deployment.

Amazon's competing with dozens of other companies that also plan to offer drone delivery, including Domino’s and Walmart. Meanwhile, airlines are facing a steep drop in revenue as passengers stay at home due to the pandemic. 

“This is the largest downturn in commercial air travel that the country has ever experienced,” David Nolletti, a licensed commercial pilot and management consultant for the aerospace industry, said in a phone interview.

“The US carriers are laying off a huge portion of their workforce and they are not expecting any kind of rapid recovery," said Nolletti. "Meanwhile, there has been a growth in consumer sales over the internet and it’s all about trying to decrease human-to-human contact, which all plays into the growth of drone delivery.”

Pilot Skills Translate to Drones

Manned aviation losses could be drone companies’ gains. “If pilots find themselves furloughed due to the industry downturn, they will likely be open to a variety of employment opportunities, which could include drone operators at some point in the future,” Gregg Overman, communications director of the Allied Pilots Association, wrote in an email interview. 

The skills used in passenger aviation easily translate to drone delivery, said Nolletti, adding, “If you think about what it’s going to take to operate a group of drones, it’s going to be like a small airline. The way they operate and maintain the fleet, it’s going to look the way a traditional airline operates. Cargo goes in and out on a schedule.”

Ensuring safety is one obstacle to the growth of drone deliveries, said Michael Canders, an aviation professor at Farmingdale State College, in a phone interview. Airline personnel who are trained to high safety standards can help drone companies prevent accidents. Most drone deliveries are expected to include a high degree of automation, but piloting judgment will still be required. 

“We have seen unmanned aircraft in the wrong place and at the wrong altitude,” Canders said. “It’s not a matter of if, but when we have a collision between a manned and unmanned aircraft.” 

Pucciarella said his company has been hiring passenger airline pilots with safety in mind. Commercial drone operators are also drawing on the talents of senior mechanics who have left passenger aviation, he said. 

“We are seeing more pilots transition into these careers,” he added. “Even airline pilots doing drone operations part-time now that they have time and availability.” 

Staying Safe 

While drones are far easier to fly than manned airplanes, pilots have to know many of the same skills. Pilots who transition to drones already understand “the culture of safety,” said Pucciarella. “It’s where to fly and keeping an eye on the weather on the horizon. It’s how often you should do preventative maintenance. It’s everything that’s ingrained in manned aviators.” 

Delivery drone flying in New York City
Witthaya Prasongsin / Getty Images

If the kinks can be worked out, drone deliveries are likely to increase. Milind Dawande, professor of operations management at The University of Texas at Dallas, wrote in a recent study that the industry needs to coordinate drone travel and enhance the public perception of fleets of drones flying overhead. The paper points to pilot programs testing the technology that guides drones away from dangerous areas like airports.

"It would be reasonable to assume that drone technology is maturing quickly, and we should see a commercial rollout on a larger scale in the not-too-distant future,” said Dawande in a news release. “The COVID-19 pandemic will perhaps hasten this process."

Update 9/2/2020 3:38 PM ET: Tony Pucciarella is President of MissionGO not CEO. We've updated the story accordingly.