Research Paper: UAS Operator Crew Resource Management

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Since the first authorized use of Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) in the National Airspace System (NAS) in 1990, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has employed UAS in a variety of "important missions in the public interest," ranging from border patrol to firefighting (FAA, 2013). Primary missions include "firefighting, disaster relief, search and rescue, law enforcement, border patrol, military training and testing and evaluation," (FAA, 2013). Under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the United States Coast Guard (USCG) also uses UAS for surveillance missions, especially those related to border control (United States Coast Guard, 2013).

However, 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." They can go genuinely where "no man has gone before," perhaps not in the manner meant by Star Trek but certainly in the manner intended by organizations like NOAA. Unmanned aircraft can do what manned aircraft cannot such as, "collect data from dangerous or remote areas, such as the poles, oceans, wildlands, volcanic islands, and wildfires," (NOAA, 2013). Unmanned aircraft are also cost-effective and environmentally sensible given the potential to use rechargeable batteries and their relatively low cost of maintenance (USGS, 2013).

According to the FAA (2013), unmanned aircraft "come in a variety of shapes and sizes and serve diverse purposes." Wingspans vary from that of a toy airplane to a jumbo jet. According to NOAA (2013), wingspan varies "from less than six feet to more than 115 feet." Regardless of their being unmanned, and regardless of their size or intended function, "the responsibility to fly safely applies equally to manned and unmanned aircraft operations," (FAA, 2013). Depending on the type of aircraft, UAS may span a range as diverse as ground level to above 50,000 feet (FAA, 2013). UAS are categorically banned from flying over major urban areas and other areas designated as Class B airspace (FAA, 2013).

As the term explicitly suggests, Unmanned Aircraft Systems are unique in that they are remotely piloted; there is no internal crew. They are the ultimate real-world sophisticated version of toy airplanes, and UAS serve a number of noble causes for both human and environmental benefit. For these benefits to be continually realized, safety standards and procedures must be robust. Although UAS do not sport internal flight crew, their operation requires a team that is in most ways similar to the teams involved in traditional piloted craft. For this reason, crew resource management (CRM) is central to UAS operations.

Background: Crew Resource Management

Crew resource management involves the art and science of decision making. The phrase was coined in 1979 by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) during a workshop entitled Resource Management on the Flightdeck (Helmrich, Merritt & Wilhelm, 1999). The NASA workshop was called to examine and explore causes of air traffic incidents and to provide solutions. During the conference, many of the human error issues related to air traffic accidents were explored in depth. These issues included "interpersonal communications, decision making, and leadership," (Helmrich, Merritt & Wilhelm, 1999).

Analyses of human errors, particularly pilot errors, led to the evolution of the term Cockpit Resource Management. From the beginning, the Cockpit Resource Management programs took a human resources (HR) approach by recommending more robust training, communications, and leadership development programs. Cockpit resource management further evolved into Crew Resource Management, preserving the acronym's integrity while accounting for human resources issues beyond the realm of the cockpit. Crew Resource Management (CRM) takes into account more than the crew on board the aircraft, and extends well into ancillary services. When it comes to UAS, all CRM takes place outside of the cockpit.

Since the evolution of UAS, CRM approaches have since proliferated and become industry standards. CRM for UAS is highly complex, taking into account the varying components of operations on the ground and in flight. The key components of CRM, outlined below, inform both ground and flight operations.

CRM: Key Components


One of the key components of crew resource management is decision-making analysis. As Mulenburg (n.d.) points out, "decision making is seldom a precise, rational activity." Poor judgment, poor perceptual skills, and biases can all impede the ability to think rationally. In a hierarchical organization such as those involved in the government or military agencies, decision-making can be especially problematic because of the 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 are responsible for a large majority of accidents. 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."


As the original NASA conference on cockpit resource management showed, training is critical to effective CRM. In fact, "the driving idea behind CRM is to train aircrews in communication skills to maximize coordination and minimize the chance for errors," (Muhlberg, n.d.). Training entails everything from standard flight simulation modules, to technology development, to training in communication and team coordination.


Coordination is critical to CRM because all members of the operations crew need to be connected and communicating effectively and synchronously. This almost always depends on the judicious use of technology. As Muhlberg (n.d.) points out, a core function of CRM is to "integrate the knowledge and experience of all team members to arrive at a wise and robust decision." This entails regular meetings, either virtual or in person, to discuss issues related to ground and flight operations. Muhlberg (n.d.) champions the use of team resource integration management (TRIM) as a part of the CRM coordination process. TRIM entails talking with each team member regularly, respecting each team member to encourage honesty and openness, initiating action rather than stagnating or being indecisive, and monitoring results. An approach like this one can and should be applied to the UAS environment.

Current CRM Regarding Ground Operations

Ground operations and ground crew CRM will differ significantly depending on the context of the UAS operation. With regards to the United States Army's Gray Eagle, CRM ground operations will entail coordination, training, and decision making planning on issues related to safety. Gray Eagle has recently come under a high degree of criticism after due to accusations of low reliability of systems and general technological failures (Beckhusen, 2012). The Gray Eagle has been compared with the Air Force's "famous Predator drone," but has failed so far to keep up (Beckhusen, 2012).

Current CRM Regarding Flight Operations

NASA (2013) underscores the importance of in-flight coordination of UAS operations: "Before unpiloted or remotely piloted aircraft can safely operate in the same airspace as other, piloted aircraft, robotic aircraft and their operators will need to demonstrate a high level of operational robustness and the ability to 'sense and avoid' other air traffic." Technology is the key to resolving many of the "sense and avoid" problems that may arise.

Regulatory Guidance

The FAA (2013) notes that unmanned aircraft are flying in American airspace "under very controlled conditions." One of those conditions is that UAS cannot enter Class B airspace, usually meaning urban centers where there is already a large concentration of manned aircraft. The FAA (2013) also offers differential guidance for civil/private sector UAS and public sector UAS. There are two methods of obtaining FAA approval for UAS operations, each corresponding to whether the operator is public or private sector.

According to the FAA (2013), the only way by which a private organization or individual can obtain clearance in the National Air Space (NAS) for use of a UAS is to receive an experimental airworthiness certificate. The experimental airworthiness certificate is issued only for specific areas of use such as "research and development, flight and sales demonstrations and crew training," (FAA, 2013). Civil sector UAS are prohibited from carrying either persons or property for sale. There are plans to create a smoother integration of civil with public sector UAS guidelines, as part of the FAA's NextGen program (FAA, 2013).

Public UAS can obtain a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) from the FAA. Examples include the use of UAS in "law enforcement, firefighting, border patrol, disaster relief, search and rescue, military training, and other government operational missions," (FAA, 2013). The procedure by which the FAA (2013) grants the COA is extensive and designed to promote maximal responsibility, safety, and CRM. However, CRM is not expressly covered under the FAA provisions. As the use of UAS in the public sector is increasing due to their attractive advantages over manned aircraft and… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Cite This Research Paper:

APA Format

UAS Operator Crew Resource Management.  (2013, April 26).  Retrieved July 17, 2019, from

MLA Format

"UAS Operator Crew Resource Management."  26 April 2013.  Web.  17 July 2019. <>.

Chicago Format

"UAS Operator Crew Resource Management."  April 26, 2013.  Accessed July 17, 2019.