Jesse Austin

Army Aviator looking for advice

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I’m currently an Army Aviator interested in pursuing a career in the UAV field.  Can anyone give me some pointers on how to gain flight hours and make myself marketable?  Also, are there any entry level job positions that will train helicopter pilots looking to make the transition?

Edited by Jesse Austin

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Hi @Jesse Austin welcome to the forum.  Unfortunately anyone and everyone can fly a drone and thinks they can hang out a shingle to be a commercial operator.  That’s not to say that there’s not a ton of value in your aviation experience, it’s just not likely the reason for your success in the commercial UAS industry. 

The key is aligning your experience with a specific application of the UAV that solves a problem well enough to get paid to do it.  The value to the customer is in the data the UAV collects, not necessarily how it is flown.  Most missions that require a high level of precision are autonomous.   

As with most things in aviation it’s about practice, the number of hours doesn’t mean the same thing in the UAV world as it does in general aviation.  You just need to get a UAV and learn to fly it in all orientations in a variety of environments, near and around trees and power lines, over water, close to tall structures etc..  we have tried quite a few people who were accomplished at flying at an RC Park that weren’t very good in real world missions.  

Marketing your aviation professionalism will likely get you through the door but it won’t close the deal, that depends on the value of the data you collect and for that you either have to be the expert or partner with someone who is.  So your experience has a lot to do with finding the right partner who recognizes that your overall approach to aviation greatly improves your likelihood of completing successful missions. 

Unfortunately there aren’t that many successful commercial UAV companies out there.  Many of the ones that are were formed by professionals such as yourself and know that the entry level pay is not nearly what it needs to be to attract that level of experience. 

I realize that this sounds negative, it’s not, a lot of people will recommend any number of online resources that connect those with drones with companies looking for operators and make it sound much rozier than it is.  There’s a pony in this industry somewhere, you just need to catch it.  If you’ve ever tried to catch a pony you know it takes a carrot, a rope and a lot of patience. 

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Thank you for the quick and honest response!  I realize the UAV field is in it’s infant stages, even in current military operations.  The Army is still writing the manuals on how to integrate UAVs in their combat operations and NAS, which means there is a lot of room for growth.  It also means there is very little official guidance, which is why I’m reaching out and trying to network. The UAV field is a recent interest for me, so I’m still looking to get my bearings straight with the practical application of unmanned systems in the commercial industry and law enforcement.  My experience with military application is through air assault operations in Afghanistan.  My interest goes beyond simple piloting.  I’m a maintenance test pilot/maintenance manager for the UH-60M with significant experience, so I’m naturally inclined to the maintenance and engineering side of the field.  Long story short, I’m looking for a foothold in the field working with larger UAV platforms to include, but not limited to the Predator, Reaper, and Scan-eagle.  I recently discovered a position on a website offering an OCONUS helicopter to UAV transition as a civilian contractor for the military.  Basically this company will train rotary wing aviators to fly an unspecified UAV system overseas for the military.  Almost seems too good to be true.  What are your thoughts?

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I think your assesment is spot on.  Keep in mind that for the most part on these forums when people discuss commercial operations it’s sUAS (55 pound weight limit).  

About the only place you’ll find work with the platforms you mentioned is with a DoD contractor.  The small sUAS typically used in the military like the Puma and Raven are old and far too expensive for commercial sUAS applications. 

We had to develop our own systems to safely carry the type of instruments that could collect actionable data: https://aerialalchemy.com/  2019 will be the year where more companies like us will either enter the market or fail.  It’s exciting and nerve racking all at the same time.  

@PatR could fill you in on the life of a contractor.  

 

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Thank you, gentlemen, for this information.  It is greatly appreciated.  PatR, I would like to have a discussion on this topic if you have the time and any connections to contracting would be greatly appreciated.  I’m not limiting myself to these platforms I mentioned, it’s just I feel this may be the best way for me to get my feet wet in the field.  I’m even contemplating an MOS change to in the Army to expose myself to the military side of it.  I’m a Warrant Officer 3, so I won’t be piloting, but I would be dealing with operations and the maintenance side.  How much is Law Enforcement relying on drones currently?

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1 hour ago, Jesse Austin said:

Thank you, gentlemen, for this information.  It is greatly appreciated.  PatR, I would like to have a discussion on this topic if you have the time and any connections to contracting would be greatly appreciated.  I’m not limiting myself to these platforms I mentioned, it’s just I feel this may be the best way for me to get my feet wet in the field.  I’m even contemplating an MOS change to in the Army to expose myself to the military side of it.  I’m a Warrant Officer 3, so I won’t be piloting, but I would be dealing with operations and the maintenance side.  How much is Law Enforcement relying on drones currently?

Id think they depend on them quite a bit. Our local sheriff Department has a 8 drone fleet that's on call plus 10 officer carry DJI inspires 2 and yuneec H520. 

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Jesse,

 

Unless you are already affiliated with a law enforcement agency there's not a lot of hope in obtaining a position as a drone pilot or maintainer with one of them.  They prefer to use people within their own ranks for several reasons, one of which is having personnel already familiar with their SOP protocols.  It's a fairly closed community.

As a W/O you have a lot of aviation related opportunities in the Army.  In the Navy that rank along with some advanced education can open doors to their drone community.  Either way, do some research to learn what group is doing what and make friends in the highest places possible.  Contrary to what you mentioned earlier, the military game book for drone operations is very well established and only gets hung up in areas where new technology is being considered for integration.  As technology is advancing faster than military agencies can react that speed in developments breeds a lot of indecision and confusion at higher levels.  The hurry up and wait game has never changed.

If you're seriously considering the civilian sector you'll need a degree to achieve much in the way of advancement if you get hired somewhere.  Take a look at the career opportunities at various company websites and you'll see that educational requirements sit at the top of the qualifications list.  You have some great qualifiers already with a military and possible deployment history, and they love people that already have a clearance.  They don't like taking people lacking a clearance as the expense to submit someone for investigation is really expensive.

You mentioned the Scan Eagle, produced by a Boeing subsidiary named Insitu, Inc.  They have another program of record platform called the RQ-21 Blackjack.  As a vet you meet some of the initial qualifications for a field service representative (FSR), which encompasses both flight operators and maintenance personnel for both platforms.  Recognize they run their ship in a manner very similar to the way the military works, with many in management having strong military histories. With new hires there can be an initial distinction but the separation between flying and servicing is something that is quickly lost.  You have to be able to do both.  Bear in mind that FSR's are expected to deploy for the majority of the year.  It's quite possible to be out 9 or more months at a time with only 30-45 days of home time between deployments.  Unless there is something about you that fits the needs of other departments, or that would permit you to excel as part of a department management team, you would remain an FSR and deploying to forward locations for your entire term of employment.  Some of those places are quite remote and very, very primitive.  That can be great for some people but hard on those with families they leave at home.

To get in the door requires a top notch resume' that closely fits the position qualifications mentioned on the careers page.  Military and deployment history, clearance status, time remaining on the clearance, college degrees more or less appropriate to the desired position, experience, physical condition and your ability to make people want to like you all come together to land a position.  If you get an interview, tell them what they want to hear and how your skills and experience will benefit the company and how the company will help to grow, both professionally and academically over the course of the long career you hope to spend as a team member.  If you're a team player you have a head start.  If you're the independent type you won't last long.  If you're the indecisive type you won't last long.  They don't like or want people that want to be heroes.  The pay and benefits are pretty good, and the job can be great for those that can play the game.

Edited by PatR

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Pat,

With drones becoming more advanced, perhaps they'll go down the path of civilian contracting.

Army Aviation is going through quite a few changes these days.  With the airlines opening the flood gates and the high optempo with less Aviators and Maintainers to do the job, a lot of people are looking for other opportunities.  With that said, if I wanted to explore other avenues of Army Aviation, HRC would be very reluctant to let a UH-60M pilot make the switch to UAV.  I could always make the switch back to the Navy.  I have a degree in Biology/Chemistry, which would fill the requirements for OCS.  Unfortunately I don't have an engineering degree, which would be more beneficial.  

From what I've experienced with Army drone operation, it is difficult to integrate drones into OCONUS training due to FAA regulations.  I'm not sure if it's because of a bunch of red tape at the top or it's because the the aircraft are not instrument rated.  I'm sure they'll figure it out soon enough.  

The thought of deploying into primitive, remote areas doesn't bother me at all.  It's pretty much been my entire deployment history.  What I'd have to consider would be the constant deployments.  I have a young family, so it would be hard on us.  They are used to me being away from home, but a constant rotation of 9 months on and 30-45 days in between would be difficult.  Do you happen to know how long they maintain that type of deployment cycle?  The drone community has so much potential on the civilian side.  I just wish it was more established.   

I'm a quick learner, so I have that going for me.  I'm not looking to be a "hero" per say, I just want to get the job done the most efficient way possible.  I'm not interested in being a "spotlight Ranger."  It think it's silly.  On a daily basis I work closely with the full spectrum of ranks and I learn something from everyone I work with.  I feel that's the key to making informed and decisive decisions.  To me, the rank structure is just what it is and doesn't define a person's ability to think.  If being a team player and working efficiently is playing the game, then it will come naturally to me.  Pay is important to me of course, but I also realize it'll be an entry level job.  I'm perfectly fine with that as long as there is potential for growth.  

Thank you for taking the time to respond and I greatly appreciate your advice.  If anything else comes to mind, please feel free to share it with me.  

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Thanks for your experience history.  It makes gauging a possible fit a lot easier and establishes what your comfort level will handle.

Interesting the Army would not cross train a UH-60 crew member for UAV operations when they will try to obtain Shadow instructors from the civilian market.  A little insult to injury in the next as there was a point the Army considered training cooks to operate complex UAV's.  Someone figured out that was probably a bad idea and would have ended up cost prohibitive in crashed UAV's.  Funny thing, the personnel they ultimately did select to train for operations ended up causing a significant increase in incident rates where they took over from the pre-existing civilian contractors.  The Air Force works just the opposite.  When they need more UAV pilots they will, and have,  pull from the F-16 pilot ranks for cross training.  Then again, the Air Force eliminated most of their civilian contractor operators quite some time back.  The Navy likes contractors for some work but the groups handing more specialized activities employ military personnel.  That keeps the stuff that needs to stay quiet, quiet.  In today's market a good UAV candidate will have a good understanding of aviation and flight, military protocols, computer literate, a fairly strong knowledge of telecommunications and IT, with strong Excel skills.  They need to understand business is about making money and things many find important will get sacrificed to accomplish that end.

As for how long a civilian outfit would keep an operator on long deployment schedules, my experience, and observations with other team mates, shows some companies will actually increase the tempo and terms over time.  If it is a growing company or expanding in sales there will be a constant shortage of operators.  Similar applies if a company develops new models and lands contracts that deploys the new products without phasing out old products.  For myself, I started out with a 90 days on, 90 days off schedule, with "off" meaning I could be anywhere I desired and do whatever.  With each deployment the time on station increased while the time home decreased.  That type of deployment modification remained a constant until I had to stop deploying for health reasons.  Had I not possessed knowledge and skills that benefited R&D and system reliability improvements my employment would have come to an end.  There are many doing what I was doing that have been locked in a pretty rough deployment cycle for the past 10+ years.  Many have quit in order to be with family.

Your assessment of FAA regulations inhibiting U.S. use of UAV's is correct. On the military side there's also the Posse Comitatus Act to consider where military UAV's are considered.  Truth be told though, our military has been operating UAV's in our airspace since at least 2005, where the Hunter was being used to surveil our southern border.  Somewhat later the G.A. Predator was employed to maintain a watch on our northern border, and has been used in the same area to provide proof of criminal activity by U.S. citizens.  Other government operations have used various high level UAV's for surveillance of the U.S. civilian population in U.S. TFR locations a U.S. President was visiting, forest fires, and deployed to support law enforcement agencies attempting to capture suspected criminals. Our Coast Guard employs several types of UAV's for coastal watch and drug interdiction at sea using both contractors and military personnel for operations.

Your degree and military history would get you in the door for an interview.  From my perspective the degree is not viewed by companies as much for relativity to the field of endeavor as it is for a demonstration of the ability to learn.  I've seen people with degrees in Theology land upper level management positions.  I've also seen many with business degrees that couldn't find their backside with both hands land in critical management positions.  We won't talk about new engineer graduates as they frequently are almost worthless unless they had  hand's on experience prior to entering the job market.

Law enforcement uses drones for many things, traffic and criminal activities being some of them.  They are also using them for general population surveillance despite public statements to the contrary.  Understand that LEA's don't have personnel dedicated to drone operations, they pull people from the ranks to learn drones in order to augment department capability when the need presents itself.  The training ends up sort of like a perk where the individual gets a bump in pay for a new field classification.

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When we first started we did a lot of work with first responders and developed a saying, “firefighters, search and rescue - good. Police and SWAT - bad.”   Not because the latter isn’t as important but the public’s perception between the two is so wildly different.  

Honestly, I don’t think that perception has changed much.  People in California are still very sensitive to privacy issues and skeptical of law enforcement using UAVs.  Many of the various departments rely on volunteer operators, most use DJI.  Your probably never going to make much money in either of those scenarios.  

59 minutes ago, Jesse Austin said:

With drones becoming more advanced, perhaps they'll go down the path of civilian contracting.

We have a CRADA with NAVSEA and we’re one of the few, if not the only, civilian UAV developers allowed to fly for the military.  When the DoD banned COTS on May 23, every department of the Navy darkened our doorstep and evaluated what we’re doing.  Led to some great conversation but not to a lot of action yet.  The biggest impediment to working with the Military is qualifying to do business with them.  They are not well equipped to conduct business transactions out side the DoD program of record.  

The trouble is that none of the DoD contractors are in position to fill the void left by the ban on COTS and companies like ours aren’t qualified to accept payment.  Honestly I don’t see that changing anytime soon.  

It’s fine for us because we already have our foot in the door, but we also don’t depend on our Navy business.  At the moment there isn’t enough incentive for civilian companies that aspire to fill that void to go through the arduous process of becoming a program of record and its doubtful that the military will make enough of a commitment unless they do.  

Mite a chicken and egg thing..

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" We have a CRADA with NAVSEA and we’re one of the few, if not the only, civilian UAV developers allowed to fly for the military."

Boeing has similar associations with NAVSEA and NAVAIR, which I'll assume is what enables their civilian subsidiary Insitu to "independently" develop and fly for the military and civilian agencies and corporations.  Those types of associations makes operational acceptance a lot simpler as they need only comply with existing military standards and CoA's instead of civilian FAA standards.  There is also the ability to compete directly with existing programs of record and win contracts with products that are not under the total control of the military or government.  One can also win "no bid" contracts with products that are not covered by a program of record.  What makes "small" businesses becoming accepted by military/government agencies so difficult is what I'll call "access".  Unless the company already has a long history of government or DoD contracts, or is one of the mega corporations doing business with the government, access for small and/or emerging companies is for all intents and purposes blocked.  You can spend a lot of $$ and a lifetime trying to get doors opened up, as many of the original AUVSI members found out.  If there is a company that has a great product, been trying for years to gain access, but can't gain government market entry after years of trying, should they be purchased or absorbed by any of the mega players their existing products suddenly become very attractive to government agencies.  It's not what you have or do, but who you are when doing the talking.

I have a theory that's why a certain company suddenly partnered with Precision Hawk as Precision Hawk had previously partnered with Boeing. Boeing has access across a great many fields of endeavor, while one of their subsidiaries has ranking members of the military and AOPA on their advisory board.  If an electric drone company was to partner with someone like AeroVironment with a long history of DoD contracts they would likely see difficult to open doors suddenly swing wide open.

"  At the moment there isn’t enough incentive for civilian companies that aspire to fill that void to go through the arduous process of becoming a program of record and its doubtful that the military will make enough of a commitment unless they do."  

I totally agree with that.

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To many corporate partners where each has to put their fingerprints on any new developments before they can be released.  Works sort of like a color blind artist having influence over the final version of paintings created by normal vision artists.  Agreements are far and few between.

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Another consideration, Jesse, once you establish your drone imaging and data collection skills, is to establish a qualified veteran-owned small business entity with your county government and the federal government. This type of entity fills specific subcontracting requirements by prime contractors doing business with federal, state and county government agencies. Your firm may not be the direct recipient of a contract, but you can work through the mid-sized, local-market based prime contractors to generate business. It's a bit of a hunting and relationship building process, but once established and you have a trusted relationship with the engineering firms and contractors, you'll be better positioned to operate as a service provider. Many of the larger engineering and construction companies have already seen the value of integrating drone operations into their businesses for BIM and construction site progress monitoring. Securing a position with these types of firms will be challenging as they tend to go in-house first.

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Guys, as a GIS/IT/Environmental Sciences professional who uses sUAVs, I want to say that I agree with and appreciate what I'm hearing from you guys! This stuff belongs on its own FAQ page. Well done. 

The only thing I might add is that 1) getting part 107 certificated is a pretty good/easy/inexpensive place to start, if you haven't done that already (obvious, but worth mentioning?) 2) I would check in with the Army Corps of Engineers (they're doing lots of LiDAR and storm damage assessment work with drones these days). Also, what about Border Patrol? Who wouldn't expect those guys to be up to their necks in UAVs in the next year or ten? Finally... 3) have you considered pursuing a master's in biogeochemistry and/or remote sensing? That would take advantage of your previous college experience and position you well for wetland ecology drone work. Florida, for instance, has 5 water management districts (I work for one of them) that manage millions of acres of wetlands that change from one week to the next. We're finding that satellite imagery plus "drone truthing" (for wetlands over a few thousand acres) plus drone imaging (hyperspectral and LiDAR) for the smaller ones and supervised data classification are really useful tools in managing natural systems, water quality and quantity, and flood protection (our 4 core mission areas). I suspect that, like GIS, Part 107 will eventually be part of minimum requirements for field ecologists, but for right now, it's a way to stand out from the crowd, and ensure that you get some field time in every month or so. We are also required by statute to give hiring preference to those who served in defense of our country.

Kindest regards, and thanks for your service.

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Bill makes a good point. I recently flew a project for a contractor that is rebuilding the S333N water control system for the South Florida Water Management District, providing orthomosaics and data of the pre-construction area and pre-construction ground video of existing conditions. Using longer range UAVs to provide images and data for the water management districts offers greater detail for more accurate decision making. Cities along Florida's coast that expect sea level rise have started to use LiDAR and photogrammetry to measure seawalls and implement rules requiring landowners to increase seawall heights. This speaks to the use of UAVs to observe and measure ecological systems.

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Pat,

The Army does a lot of things that are penny wise and pound foolish, which ends up costing them more money in the long run.  I don't get it.  I think the Army needs some financial planners to help them manage their assets.  The Air Force and Navy seem to manage their money a lot more efficiently.  I don't think it's wise to put cooks into a technically demanding field such as UAV operation.  Not to be condescending, but there's a reason why they were chosen to be cooks and not placed in a technical field to begin with.  That has to do with maturity, their technical aptitude, and overall intelligence.  Like the Air Force, I think pulling from the pilot ranks gives the operator an advantage with airspace knowledge as well as a technical and operational experience.  This would make more operational and fiscal sense.  The Army is currently using former Warrant Officer pilots who needed a job after they phased out the OH-58 Kiowa as platoon leaders in the UAV world.  They aren't even allowed to fly the UAV.  Enlisted guys with very little operational experience are flying the UAVs.  Nothing against enlisted guys, I was one myself, but they don't have the experience you would get from the Warrant Officer or experienced RLO side of things.  If I were king for a day...

I took a short civilian class through the Army called "Contracting Officer Representative."  It was a very informative and interesting class.  Earned a certificate for whatever that's worth.  Anyways, I suppose if you can network with a contracting representative it might help a new company gain a little traction with a military contract.  It seems like a military contract is more trouble than it's worth.  The civilian side seems like it has a lot more potential and application.

If the big issue with civilian UAV contracting is the lack of personnel and increased deployment times due to a lack of personnel, why wouldn't they make the requirements to be an operator less stringent?  Wouldn't it make more sense to hire someone with an aptitude and train from within.  I looked at some of the requirements to be an operator and it seems a little unnecessary.  It seems like unless you have a fair amount of experience with the military flying UAVs or a larger civilian company, you're not even getting your foot through the door.  Not to toot my own horn, but look at a person like myself.  I have valuable operational experience as a flight lead and air mission commander performing numerous air assaults.  I already have an air sense, operating both tactically in hostile foreign environments and flying in NAS all over the United States.  I'm a mission briefer, so I have experience on the safety side of aviation.  Working as a maintenance test pilot and maintenance officer, I have management and technical skills, not to mention a high technical aptitude.  I use excel on a daily basis for aircraft status reports.  After Instructor Pilots release new pilots from their initial progression, they release them to the maintenance test pilots to continue their training.  We're usually the most experienced pilots because so much is expected of us on an operational, maintenance, and training level.  Anything I'm lacking I can learn.  Hell, I know how a civilian employment works.  I would be perfectly content with an entry level job with a chance to move up the ranks based on work ethic.  I would just need a chance to prove myself.   

Edited by Jesse Austin

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Av8chuck,

I think the best way to approach military contracts is not to approach them at all.  Once the military realizes they need help they'll open the doors for bidding.  

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David,

Thanks for the advice!  I never really thought about the subcontracting path.  That way the larger businesses can cut through most of the red tape with the local and federal government.  

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Bill,

Another great idea.  That way I can utilize my degree to some capacity.  Any idea if the EPA is using drones and if they use contractors?  I think using drone imaging would be more a cost effective option than a manned aircraft.  Plus it would give you access to those hard to reach areas like wetlands that would require a helicopter and a photographer.  What kind of software do drones use to map out topography?

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I fly a Phantom 4 Pro and process with 3D Robotics SiteScan. It provides outstanding orthomosaics and data files. There are other programs, such as Pix4D, that provide similar benefits.  I'm exploring fixed-wing and VTOL UAVs for longer flights over larger areas, which would be needed for aerial surveys of the Everglades and construction sites.

 

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Jesse, the first thing you'll want to do is get your Part 107 Remote Pilot sUAV license. You have all of the knowledge needed already. You'll need weather, loading and flight characteristics, VFR, airspace, and part 107 regs.

Most of the work being done with the sUAV is photography / cinematography and real estate. So, I would get on the phone and talk to Amazon, Power Companies, Oil refineries, security companies and police departments share your background and let them know that you want to fly UAVs. Keep in mind these are small UAVs and not Predators. 

Best of luck to you Jesse.

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