Monday, November 5, 2012

Novenber 5th, 2012

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

What is the future of aviation? More importantly, perhaps, what is the future of aviation in our part of the world?

Recently there has been a fresh announcement from Boeing regarding a new supersonic airliner, at the same time as news of aircraft manufacturers cutting back on staffing and suffering from the economic blizzard that currently bites at the ankles of the industry. Some manufacturers are reducing their jet-aircraft offerings, others investing in them. This coupled with the start-up airline boom (and coming bust), it is time to remember that there are only three things that are certain in aviation:-

  1. That there is a lot of uncertainty for the future of many sectors of aviation – always, it has not changed since the beginning of aviation.
  2. If you want to end up with a small fortune in aviation, you had better start with a very large fortune.
  3. Aviation is a way of life, it is about passion, not about profit, and therefore, if you don’t love aviation for the sake of aviation, you should stay out of the skies.
The creativity of man- and woman-kind has been great over recent years – just look back over the past 100 years, and compare the developments with the preceding 500 years; the pace has clearly picked up! Furthermore, that pace has no sign of abating. The challenge lies in ‘where is the growth and what direction will it take?’
What has driven the growth in recent years? ‘War and Peace'. No, not the 1869 novel by Leo Tolstoy, but rather the conflicts and ‘conflict avoidance’ of the past century. We all know that military conflict has grown some sectors and that the desire for a peace-filled world others - so the answer could be Mankind has used war, cold war and peace-maintenance as a fuel for innovation. The internet started as a military concept, and found its way into peace-informing, up-rising motivating and world-change-factor on a scale that is yet to be fully comprehended.
What is the aviation world likely to release, in the coming years, that could have similar wide-reaching impact on the world? The growth in drones worries me. Drones are aircraft without pilots on board. They are flown remotely, usually for information gathering purposes, but also for less ‘benign’ activities.
Some of these drones are similar in size to a small conventional aircraft, others can be the size of a small bird – and some are being developed to be the size of a large insect. Equipped with cameras, these machines can be used to gather information, both in the interest of the general population, as well as against the common interest.
Software can be linked to the image acquisition that can be used to identify known criminals (from biometric databases), or to look for missing persons – or to track a person suspected of bad-intentions. Currently, cameras are readily available that can be used for face-recognition from more than one thousand meters away. Hence, the drones can be out of sight and ear-shot, whilst they are used to monitor where it is felt appropriate by the operator (generally the authorities).
In some countries this is a growing challenge for legislators – and for airspace issues -. Drones may be operated by the military, the police, fire service, etc., as well as by private corporations and individuals – a new arena with a whole new world of challenges! It is believed that some major software corporations are already using this technology for image acquisition.
Whilst travelling recently, a friend of mine demonstrated a small drone, with a video camera on board, that he controlled from his smart phone, and received images with, in real time. This device is readily available for sale to all and sundry for a few hundred US dollars.
Such ‘baby-drones’ have a limited range and endurance, and are seen more as a toy for the ‘gadget man’, but could be, and have been, used to obtain information from unsuspecting individuals – the spy-in-the-sky-in-your-back-yard!
The potential for the more professional bits of kit is seriously wide – not only for defence but also for exploration, aerial photography, search and rescue, monitoring and management in times of humanitarian need and more.
As I peer into my West African crystal ball, I do not see these ‘pilot-less’ machines impacting in our airspace. The smaller machines, insect sized, and even the ‘opti-copter’ remote-control helicopter with camera, are not stable enough for our part of the world. The weather really is far too ‘unpredictable’ and needs a lot more ‘seat of the pants’ flying. True flying skills, that would be hard to implement in a tiny aircraft, remotely or even computer-logic controlled. 
Even in the larger, peace-role drones there are many issues in the unstable flying conditions of West Africa.
The ‘remote-or-auto-pilot’ does not have the same ability to read the air. Even the Predator drone weighing in at around 1000kgs and costing millions of dollars, requires to ‘get up above’ the weather in order to operate safely. 
For the lower level, humanitarian-theatre, there are many 2- and 4- seat piloted aircraft that fall into the category of ‘functional platform’ and can be implemented to achieve amazing results – creating jobs with skills. Using modern engines and fuels these machines are quite capable of the ‘peace-time’ drone-equivalency role, at a lower cost and with a much greater effect – probably far more than any of the offerings that are ‘tripping the light fantastic’ in the press.
Take the aircraft being built in Ghana, capable of remaining airborne for extended missions of ten hours or more, with a range of over 1,500km, not only suited to the needs of the travelling man of business, the agriculturalist and other personal use, but also ideal photo-video platforms and humanitarian monitoring, supply and response machines.
With a price tag around that of a Porsche Panamera, but with better fuel economy and better time over distance records in this environment, light, human-piloted aircraft are still non- or under-utilised by most agencies, corporations and individuals in West Africa. 
Much as I know and experience the real, deep-seated benefits of developing this sector of aviation, I fear that the awareness levels of the benefits associated with entry level aviation – both in manufacturing and in operations – will take a long time to be grasped by those who would gain the most, and with it the benefits, especially to those on the ground, will also be delayed…
Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail

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