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Column F o c u s o n Tr a i n i n g by A nd y Roe Autonomous Control and Job Security Humans were ready to fly the first airplane years before they did in the early 20 th century, when a lightweight self-sufficient internal combustion engine became possible. On deck of course was the helicopter, which first flew only a few decades later because of its more complex mechanical design and peculiarities. Until heavier-than-air flight, men could elect to drive horse teams for a living, and when the automobile arrived, chauffeurs and taxi drivers were needed. But with such a revolutionary mode of transportation as the helicopter, men could boastfully proclaim to their friends that they were going to make a living flying helicopters. The aspirations toward achieving this presumed dream job continue today. But humans are now facing a competitor at the controls. Human desire for self driving technological advancement has created a new pilot and the traditional helicopter driver could be left by the wayside in favor of a machine. The autonomous helicopter, with or without a human on board, is hard to describe from a pilotage point of view. Self driving vehicles have advanced so rapidly in recent years that the terminology we use to describe them is now obsolete. Computer, machine, robot and autonomy are each words that no longer accurately describe the function of what they really do. A computer used to be a large mass of hardware and wires, a machine was a mechanical apparatus, a robot was a science fiction device and autonomy was doing something by one’s self. The generic term autopilot has been used traditionally to describe the electronic and mechanical controls hidden behind the flight director head on the instrument panel. Far more complex, the autonomous system includes, amongst other things, advanced systems of artificial neural networks and synapses just as in the 10 Ver tical Maga zine human brain. True artificial intelligence is now just a signpost for a stop a little further down the road. Interestingly enough, these extraordinary leap and bound advancements in technology have largely come about because most of the technical, electronic and mechanical components are cheap to purchase and easy to assemble into prototypes. 3D printing has made parts and components easier to reproduce as well. It might be useful here to coin a new acronym: ITP (Information Technology Pilot) and personify this androgynous, autonomous system in the form of a robot we could put in the pilot seat. This might make it easier to relate to. So now we can ask that question again: is the ITP going to replace you on the flight deck in the near future? My answer, after telling everyone over the last many years that I would take up this career all over again in a flash, is now “yes.” I know what the ITP can do in the air because I work with two IT junkies who are the most up-to-date people I know in helicopter technology. We no longer have thought experiments on what the autonomous helicopter is capable of, but thought discussions. As the consummate instructor (after 28 years behind the cyclic I might just be qualified to say that) I spent hours with the IT chaps in a visual flight rules flight training device with advanced graphics showing them all of the complex maneuvers possible in all our pilot training programs. Although they had to discuss some of the more intricate maneuvers, in the end they agreed that all were able to be matched by autonomous control. Once again cameras, sensors, and accelerometers are all inexpensive to purchase and build with. The helicopter business is still a great sector to target as a career option. If you want to learn to fly commercially, there are lots of great ab initio and advanced flight schools to choose from. But if you want to make flying itself a reasonable living, you might need to do a lot of research and put together an intense marketing campaign to make it work for you — especially since the autonomous helicopter is here and that technology will only get better and threaten your job prospects even more in the future. The aerospace programs at the local college level have excellent diploma programs in avionics, turbine and jet engines, airport operations, unmanned aircraft systems and of course commercial pilot licensing. Your entry into an aerospace career might take a path such as this. I was born when the commercial helicopter was in its infancy. Pilots were needed to fly exploration, construction and support missions in remote areas. Three decades later, new pilots like me came on the scene to replace those retiring, but the exploration and construction work helicopters did remained much the same as in the beginning. Now, more than three decades later, the aviation industry has undergone further enormous changes: the environment is top of mind with everyone, and businesses have found ways to get things done more cheaply and efficiently, without so many helicopters. Helicopters are inefficient, not environmentally friendly, and good pilots are not always easy to find. If the autonomous helicopter continues to be improved upon, the career you have in mind of learning to fly — and then finding a pilot job — might be further from your reach. The notion of wanting to become a helicopter pilot nowadays might just be that. With the right marketing campaign and effort you can still find yourself flying for a living, but it’s much harder than it used to be.