February 7, 2009

Competing with UAS: Civil Air Patrol’s Advantages, Disadvantages, and How to Overcome Them

I know it's been a while since I've posted...well...anything. This is related to my school and personal exploits. I graduate only a short time from now, and that means the job search is on full time. Once June comes, and my life takes a somewhat more-normal track, I'll be back into the swing of things full time. For now, enjoy a piece I wrote in response to a discussion we had at our last squadron meeting.

One of my projects these days is looking at the politics of the creation of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Program Office (UAPO). I am doing this as part of my duties as a student, and for personal interest in the idea. Naturally, I stay current with the evolving UAS world and their proliferation into the national airspace system. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine have started a UAS program along both the southern and northern border, and NOAA is also spinning up a UAS program of their own that should be operational within the next few years.

I am a contender that both manned and unmanned assets can coexist together, peacefully. But as the proliferation of UAS, as well as their capabilities, increase, there is discussion at the local level of organizations such as CAP losing their advantages of cost-effectiveness to the growing UAS market. Fortunately for CAP, the FAA is dragging its feet on creating a comprehensive UAS policy for operations in the national airspace. However, my research for the aforementioned project indicates that a comprehensive policy is on the horizon; and it may not be good for the Civil Air Patrol.

Firstly, it should be noted that right now UAS are “sexy”. They’re the new kid in town and therefore are the most interesting. Everyone wants one, and everyone wants to use them regardless of how well they will perform the mission. However, they have another capability that Civil Air Patrol currently lacks: they can provide real-time video of any target to the home base and loiter for hours (or days) on end. This is a capability that manned vehicles simply cannot match. Granted, manned aircraft can provide real-time video, but they can’t loiter for more than just a couple of hours before risking crew fatigue. The larger airframes can accomplish this as they can rotate out the crews, however the fuel costs skyrocket with the larger airframes. Some UAS are comparable to these aircraft in terms of operating cost, but most are cheaper. Smaller, cheaper manned airframes, can rotate assignments, but that means having at least 2 aircraft, and crews for both. This also means the costs have the potential to increase beyond what the customer wants.

However, these are the only major advantages of unmanned aircraft that CAP cannot compete with. The remaining disadvantages are correctable, and lie in two major areas: technology and dedication. Technology-wise, CAP is very much behind the curve. SDIS was cool a few years ago, but technology is constantly changing, and now the system is antiquated and over-priced for comparable systems with better capabilities. Most UAS, and even many manned platforms have this capability, as well as the ability to transmit video real-time back to headquarters. However, there are solutions to this. UAS payloads can be adapted for our own aircraft. The company I worked for during the summer manufactures an overhead imagery pod that is less than 15 pounds, and has the same capabilities as the larger FLIR systems. It is also cheaper, and easier to operate than a FLIR pod. It doesn’t take one with an over-active imagination to imagine how to integrate this pod into a C-172 airframe, and modification of our existing airframes with this technology should be easy. Training is also simple: within only a few hours an aircrew and ground receiver can be trained on how to use the technology effectively. The major factor that would stand in our way is having the FAA go along with this modification. Technically, this would turn our aircraft into experimental airframes under the FARs. Getting a waiver for this, or finding another method of certification to meet such a large fleet would need to be negotiated between the FAA and the Civil Air Patrol before any program such as this could take place.

Dedication should not be construed as a lack of individual dedication, but rather the ability for members to leave work to perform missions as needed. As volunteers, all members that are not cadets work full-time jobs to pay the bills and enable them to perform their duties within the Civil Air Patrol. However, our potential missions may take place during times when most need to be at work to support the family. One could use personal days to accomplish missions, however this cuts down on the family time and vacations that the individual rightly deserves. A way to ensure that members can take off from work, without using personal days or suffer repercussions from ‘the boss’ needs to be found so as to increase our ability to perform missions as needed.

Civil Air Patrol does have one major advantage that UAS do not currently have: experience. As stated above, UAS are the new kid in town, and a lot of what is going on with them is a learning curve. Our methods are tried-and-true with decades of tradition and experience behind them. Our experience comes in two areas: mission skills and use of legacy airframes. Civil Air Patrol aircrews come from all walks of life. My squadron alone boasts 3 airline captains, 5 retired military, and one aerospace engineer. This varied experience means that one aircrew can have literally tens of thousands of hours, and decades of experience present to accomplish the mission. Additionally, CAP uses legacy airframes, indeed two of the most successful in the history of aviation, to accomplish its missions. UAS have only been viable options for around a decade, and are constantly being improved and updated. Predator, Shadow and Global Hawk certainly come close to being legacy airframes. But there are no UAS airframes with the same proven reliability and safety record as the C-172 and C-182. That alone gives the CAP an advantage.

These two factors are perhaps CAP’s greatest advantage in competing with UAS in the national airspace system. When combined with a new professional image, new technologies, and a better ability to rely on personnel, CAP can remain competitive in the market for airborne systems. If the CAP can accomplish these three items, while keeping costs low, it will mean that CAP has a future, and keep the organization from going the way of so many other good and patriotic organizations in the past.