Pulling Pitch Series – Are Drones Reducing the Need For Rotor Wing Pilots


While drones are proving useful in very specific situations and conditions, helicopters and human pilots continue to be critical in many important applications.

Drones are less expensive to operate and can be useful for simple aerial observation and photography. Helicopters, however, provide heavy-duty, longer duration functions that will continue to be required in the future.

Advantages of Helicopters

Rotor wing aircraft are superior in the following aspects:

  • Flight Time and Battery Capacity

Currently, battery-operated drones are limited to a flight time of about thirty minutes or less. As the velocity and maneuvering increases, the flight time can shorten. Helicopters stay aloft for hours depending on fuel capacity, operations, and efficiency.

  • Controllable Range

The more expensive drones are controllable from about 8 km (4.8 miles). With human-piloted rotor-wing aircraft, this characteristic is not an issue.

  • Payloads

Drones are extremely limited in moving material from one place to another. Amazon and others are experimenting with moving smaller boxes (less than 20 pounds) using professional grade “octocopters”. However, other factors including wind resistance must be calculated to determine how far and how much a drone may carry, deliver, and return.

Helicopters like the famous Boeing CH-47D Chinook, used extensively during the Vietnam War, carries loads up to 28,000 pounds. The Mil Mi 26 can fly a payload of 44,000 pounds for approximately 500 miles.

  • Carrying Passengers

Drones do not carry humans. Rotor wing aircraft can quickly transport soldiers, fire-fighting crews, and rescue personnel to and from positions that fixed-wing aircraft cannot.

  • Wind-Resistance

Even the most sophisticated, professional-grade drones are highly susceptible to high-wind conditions. Helicopters and pilots can adapt to difficult weather conditions and are often essential in observation and rescue missions during and after severe weather situations.

  • Search and Rescue

Helicopter crews perform many missions to find and rescue individuals lost at seas, stranded on mountainsides or in deep forests, or trapped in floodwaters.

  • Remote Operations

Helicopters are essential for certain construction projects, forestry, logging, and military operations to move people and materials in and out of remote locations.

Drone Uses

Small, inexpensive, and maneuverable, drones have become a useful resource for very specific operations. Providing remote photography and observation during a fire disaster, emergency and law enforcement events, and wartime situations, drones offer overview capability without risk to humans. Launched from just about anywhere, these devices can record and transmit close-up images from any altitude and even enter buildings through openings.

Drones are effective for news and sports coverage. Reporters can capture and transmit images of events as they occur. These devices also perform quick aerial scans following massive storms, tornadoes, and hurricanes to determine where people may be stranded and to assess the extent of damage to property.

Farmers and ranchers can oversee the status of their crops, fields, and animals with a quick drone aerial sweep of the terrain.

Drones provide benefits for surveying land and close-up initial inspections of hard-to-access components of dams, towers, and bridges.

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