Survey of Air Traffic Controller and Pilot's Experience with Unmanned Aircraft Systems

TitleSurvey of Air Traffic Controller and Pilot's Experience with Unmanned Aircraft Systems
Publication TypeReport
Year of Publication2014
AuthorsYuan, X., and J. Histon
Document NumberHCOM-2014-02
Date PublishedFebruary 2014
TypeTechnical Report Based on X. Yuan's M.Asc thesis

Radar surveillance systems, in both airspace and maritime domains, are facing increasing challenges in dealing with objects that cannot be detected by traditional transponder-based radar surveillance technologies. These objects, including birds, weather, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), hot air balloons, are labeled as non-cooperative objects. In order to prevent ambiguity and confusion for human operators using the surveillance data non-cooperative objects are commonly treated as unwanted clutter and removed from the displayed data. 

However, the omitted information of non-cooperative object can be critical to aircraft safety. With new developments in technology and radar capabilities, it is possible to detect these non-cooperative objects and consider how to distribute relevant information about them to human operators throughout a system. This is becoming increasingly important with the desire to integrate these vehicles into controlled airspace and allow their operation in proximity to traditional aircraft. A key challenge is understanding, from the perspective of existing human operators in the aviation system, what information about these vehicles will be needed, and is currently provided. The goal of this technical report is to document an investigation of controller and pilots’ experience with unmanned aircraft systems and their perspectives on what UAS information is required to best facilitate operators’ decision making. 

In order to achieve the goal, an online survey was deployed to current and retired air traffic controllers (N=51) and pilots (N=48). The most frequently cited limitations of existing primary radar surveillance systems by controllers were information accuracy, radar coverage, and display clutter; the most frequently cited limitations of existing surveillance systems by pilots were detection capabilities, challenges with visual acquisition of targets, and communications. Close to 60% of controllers and 42% of pilots reported having had some form of experience with UAS. Approximately the same proportion of controllers reported UAS operating in airspace designated for UAS operations as those reporting operations in low and high density regions of airspace and near standard flows in their airspace. Not surprisingly, the most commonly identified information requirement for both pilots and controllers was the altitude of a UAS followed by the planned maneuvers of the UAS. For those that reported having experience, the availability of the different information pieces are reported. 

The data also allowed computation of an effect that having experience with UAS has on the perception of the need for information. For controllers, having experience increased the most the requirement for information on a UAS model/type and ground speed, as well as the weight and mission of the UAS. For pilots it increased the most the requirement for knowledge of the operator of a UAS. Interestingly, for pilots, the requirement for every other information element stayed constant, or decreased when comparing perceptions of those with and without experience. 

Challenges in obtaining and using information about the UAS showed controllers were concerned about lack of information about UAS, the limitations of existing surveillance technologies, communication protocols and control authority to resolve issues and display clutter. Pilots were similarly concerned about lack of information, potential for information overload, the detect and avoid capabilities of UAS, regulations and operating procedures surrounding encounters with UAS, and communication protocols. Questions on the effect of asynchronous presentation of information from a common surveillance source (non-equal distribution time delay) showed no significant differences in the average maximum acceptable delay reported by controller (20.5 seconds) and pilot (13.64 seconds) participants. 

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