Research Paper: Human Factors in UAS

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Human Factors

"The number of unmanned aircraft in existence today is astonishing," (Hayhurst, Maddalon, Miner, DeWalt. & McCormick (2006). As unmanned aircraft become more common in national airspace, an understanding of human factors in both manned and unmanned aircraft becomes a critical component of aviation safety. As the Boeing Company (n.d.) points out, human factors account for about three-fourths of accidents in the commercial aircraft sector. Human factors are not just at play in cockpits; they are at play in every step of aviation procedure and operations, from ground crew maintenance to traffic control. The term crew resource management (CRM) has evolved in response to the changing needs of aviation, especially as aviation becomes more complex. Human factors should be of especial concern for the military sector. According to one empirical study, the "frequency of human factors mishaps was 79.1%, 39.2%, and 62.2% for the Air Force, Army, and Navy/Marines, respectively," (Tvaryanas, Thompson & Constable, 2006, p. 724). These mishaps can be prevented with effective CRM both in the unmanned and manned aircraft sectors. However similar the human resources and crew resource management issues are between manned and unmanned aircraft, there remain some key differences that should be explored. A thorough understanding of the differences and similarities between human factors in manned and unmanned aviation can create a safer airspace for all.

Crew resource management is a common element to manned and unmanned aviation. The term crew resource management (CRM) used to be "cockpit resource management, but because the field evolved to include unmanned as well as manned devices, crew resource management is more appropriate. Moreover, CRM can refer broadly to the wide range of diverse crew, roles, and individuals that work together in aviation. Crew resource management refers to decision making and managerial tactics, and generally falls within the provision of human resources management. With effective crew resource management, most preventable errors can be completely averted. As Muhlenburg (n.d.) points out, decision-making is one of the most important components of crew resource management. Decision-making analysis pertains to all aviation endeavors, whether or not there is a live crew on board.

Human beings are operating UAS, even when there is no human payload or on-board pilot. Decisions must be made related to the safety of civilians on the ground, the safety of the payload, or the safety of other aircraft in the region. If decision making is based on poor perceptual skills, instrument failure, or inadequate understanding of situational risks, errors will emerge. Unfortunately, human beings are prone to error. "Decision making is seldom a precise, rational activity," (Muhlenburg, n.d.). These human errors can be reduced significantly via effective CRM. Effective CRM entails training crew in how to make decisions in a systematic and collaborative way. Decision-making is systematic when there are core rules in place and regulations to guide behavior and actions. Collaboration also allows for more effective decision-making, as most crew recognize " the need to integrate the whole team's knowledge and skill into a final solution," (Muhlenburg, n.d.).

Poor judgment, poor perceptual skills, and biases can all lead to accidents. The mainstream media has recently uncovered issues related to UAS safety, calling to attention the need to improve the record for military unmanned aircraft (Beckhusen, 2012). In a hierarchical organization such as those involved in the government or military agencies, decision-making can be especially problematic because of the organizational hierarchy and presumption of knowledge on the part of superiors (Mulenberg, n.d.). Leaders and managers need to conceptualize problems in constructive ways, embracing uncertainty as well as the need for communication and collaboration (Mulenberg, n.d.). Flaws in the decision making process may include anything from how to react to a systems failure or how to address unforeseen traffic or weather. CRM can go a long way toward improving the safety records in every area of aviation. According to Muhlberg (n.d), "flawed decision making was one of the root causes of the loss of the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttles and their crews. It also contributed to the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter, Mars Polar Lander, and problems on other projects." Thus, problems associated with flawed decision making must be overcome by systematic programs involving the training, coordination, and management of pilots and crew in both manned and unmanned aircraft.

Of course, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) like the Gray Eagle are unique in that they are remotely piloted; there is no internal crew. They have no traditional flight crew; all crew are ground crew. This does mean that a separate set of regulations related to UAS should be developed. As Hayhurst et al. (2006) point out, the "fundamental characteristics of UASs and the hazards they present may require a new regulatory framework, rather than adaptation of existing rules," (p. 1). There are certainly differences between the ways UAS and traditional manned aircraft work, and the way crews encounter and respond to crises. There are also different types of crises that may emerge, depending on the scenario in which the aircraft are being used. Effective CRM will outline the variables of each flight scenario so that all crew members can make the most informed decision possible.

However, ground pilots are still considered to be pilots and receive pilot training (Hayhurst, et al., 2006). The ground control station used entails mastery of unique controls, which are suited to the type of aircraft being flown. In many ways, the job of the pilot in a manned flight and a pilot in an unmanned craft is not appreciably different in terms of mechanics, technologies, logistics, and even core decision-making factors. Flight control systems will be qualitatively but not functionally different in a UAF vs. A manned aircraft. on-board automation is, for instance, common among manned and unmanned vessels. Software systems may be remarkably similar between the two types of aircraft. Communication links between the ground pilot for a UAS correspond well with those involved on manned craft. Both manned and unmanned aircraft have launch and recovery systems for maximum safety. Ensuring the safety of all stakeholders is a common goal for all aviation professionals, whether they are involved in UAS or traditionally flight technologies.

Currently, UAS are used in a number of practical sectors, for both human and environmental reasons. Human factors issues will differ depending on the particular sector. The uses of UAS extend into a wide variety of fields including weather and geophysical monitoring systems. The United States Geological Survey (USGS), for example, employs unmanned aircraft under the guidance of the Department of the Interior, for terrestrial monitoring purposes. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, 2013), unmanned aircraft systems "revolutionize NOAA's ability to monitor and understand the global environment." Thus, ground control stations for the UAS will include specialists in environmental monitoring systems. There will also need to be specialists in safety issues related to unmanned aircraft. This is where manned and unmanned systems start to converge. Both manned and unmanned aircraft require ground crew to be in control of the airspace, via monitoring technologies and communications tools.

According to the Boeing Company (n.d.), human factors differ from CRM in that it addresses a broader set of issues. "Human factors involves gathering information about human abilities, limitations, and other characteristics and applying it to tools, machines, systems, tasks, jobs, and environments to produce safe, comfortable, and effective human use," (Boeing, n.d.). Integration between humans and technology must occur whether the pilot is on the ground or in the air. One of the ways the difference between human factors and CRM can be explained is with that human factors will impact decisions related to ergonomics and design of an in-flight or ground crew cockpit; whereas CRM will address decisions related to how the in-flight or ground crew communicates with each other to prevent a problem.

Both in-flight and ground pilots are responsible for "breaking the chain of errors that can result in catastrophe," (Helmreich, Merritt & Wilhelm, 1999, p. 2). Integrating CRM with other issues related to flight operations such as technology training and communications skills will be helpful. The core differences between human factors involved in UAS and in manned aircraft include the fact that UAS pilots and crew are fully dependent on technology, including technology that allows smooth communication with other aircraft in the vicinity. Another difference that must be addressed is the fact that CRM on manned aircraft takes into consideration human beings, not just the pilot, who can contribute to the approach to decision making. Psychologically, there may be barriers to overcome when operating unmanned aircraft. Pilots must never take for granted the enormous danger that UAS pose to civilians if a crash should occur. The FAA has strict regulations about where UAS may be flown -- they cannot be flown over urban areas, for example. Yet hazards are still present, and warrant attention that includes effective CRM. The problems besieging traditional manned aviation and unmanned aircraft can be addressed collectively to ensure global sky safety.


Beckhusen, R. (2012). 'Gray Eagle' Drone Fails… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Cite This Research Paper:

APA Format

Human Factors in UAS.  (2013, April 26).  Retrieved April 18, 2019, from

MLA Format

"Human Factors in UAS."  26 April 2013.  Web.  18 April 2019. <>.

Chicago Format

"Human Factors in UAS."  April 26, 2013.  Accessed April 18, 2019.