Medical Certification for Unmanned Aircraft Pilots

Though it may sound like one hand clapping, an unmanned aircraft must have a pilot — just not on the plane. And someone has to worry what may happen if the pilot becomes incapacitated.

“Although the term ‘unmanned aircraft’ suggests the absence of human interaction, the human operator/pilot is still a critical element in the success of any unmanned aircraft operation,” according to a new study (pdf) from the Federal Aviation Administration. “For many UA systems, a contributing factor to a substantial proportion of accidents is human error.”

“Regarding the risk of pilot incapacitation, at least a few factors distinguish this risk from manned aircraft,” the study noted. Since the pilot is on the ground, the effects of changes in air pressure can be ignored. Also, many advanced UA systems have procedures for communications failures or “lost data link,” which is “functionally equivalent to pilot incapacitation.” The most advanced systems, such as Global Hawk, “will continue normal flight whether a pilot is present or not.”

The study therefore recommended adoption of a minimal medical certification for pilots, including a waiver process that would also permit handicapped persons to be certified. “This process gives individuals who might not be able to fly manned aircraft an opportunity to receive medical certification for flying an unmanned aircraft.”

See “Unmanned Aircraft Pilot Medical Certification Requirements,” Federal Aviation Administration, February 2007.