The Helicopter Airborne Sensor Operator

In the Aerial Work rotor-wing operations world, there is a growing aircrew profession within this community that genuinely enhances the capabilities of both manned and unmanned rotor-wing aircraft. This profession is the Airborne Sensor Operator. If you’re curious about this unique & specialized aviation profession, Patrick Ryan will guide you through this fascinating career field and the world of rotor-wing operations.

Patrick Ryan  |  05th October 2022
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    Patrick Ryan
    Patrick Ryan

    Patrick Ryan brings over 30 years of experience as a Senior Consultant helping government and business...

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    Airborne Sensor Operator

    When someone says ‘Helicopter’, you think of Pilot, Loadmaster, Hoist Operator – right? However, there is a crew position many don't think of, which is equally important within the rotor-wing community. This crew position or profession is the Airborne Sensor Operator (ASO).Even though you’ll see Airborne Sensor Operators operate across the spectrum of aircraft from wide-body jets to Lighter-than-Air (LTA) platforms. The ASO’s contribution to the Aerial Work rotor-wing workforce has expanded tenfold since the beginning of the digital revolution in the1970s.

    With digital technology, rotor-wing aircraft started to be integrated or modified with new types of technology to enhance or improve their capabilities. However, along with these new systems or capabilities, a new type of crewmember was required to operate such kit, i.e., the ASO. So, what is this profession, and how do they contribute to the Aerial Work rotor-wing world? Let’s start with the baseline of ‘What is an Airborne Sensor Operator?’

    Airborne Sensor Operator 101

    In its basic description, an Airborne Sensor Operator is a person active in an aircraft or an unmanned aircrew collecting information from an airborne platform (manned or unmanned) for business, public safety, or military remote sensing purposes. When participating in any flight activity, the Airborne Sensor Operator is a critical flight crew or aircrew member.

    The primary role or responsibilities of any Airborne Sensor Operator is to ensure the safe operation of the aircraft, efficiently operate assigned remote sensing systems, and support the processing, exploitation, and reporting of collected information.

    Some of the general duties of a rotor-wing Airborne Sensor Operator are:

    • Flight and sensor planning,

    • Sensor installation, Testing & maintenance

    • Flight & crew management

    • Collection management

    • Sensor operations

    • Quality Control (QC) of acquired data

    • Processing, exploitation, and dissemination of acquired data

    Besides full-time ASOs, there are numerous part-time ASOs. Generally, these ASOs are researchers, real estate agents, photographers, archaeologists, etc., participating in flight activities and leveraging remote sensors to fulfil their principal jobs. Like a full-time ASO, they’re part of the standards of being a rotor-wing crewmember.

    Achilles Heel

    Like many professional career fields, the ASO profession has an Achilles Heel. The ASO Achilles Heel is ‘certification’. Because Airborne Sensor Operators are not directly flying the aircraft like a pilot, civil aviation authorities generally consider it a non-rated career field. With that, the profession lacks standards regarding training and general operations.

    However, military and public safety entities worldwide have done an excellent job establishing standards and career designations for ASOs. Still, they’re only within their organisations and not part of any global or internationally recognised classification. Even though it’s a lesser-known career field, it doesn’t mean the importance of that job is any less critical. ASOs have the same responsibilities as other crewmembers regarding the safety and accomplishment of any given flight event or operation.

    Platforms and Systems

    When it comes to the rotor-wing platforms and systems and the Airborne Sensor Operator, ASOs perform their functions on or with both manned and unmanned rotorwing aircraft with either active or passive sensors.

    Concerning manned rotor-wing platforms, the typical manned aircraft (e.g., R22/R44, Eurocopter EC145, Bell 205) used by many industry sectors is either light turbine or twin-engine helicopters. On the other hand, the typical configuration of an aerial remote sensing helicopter is a crew of two, power supply, workstation, sensor payload, data recorders, data links, and endurance to meet collection requirements.

    On the unmanned platform side, ASOs work off-board of many types of rotor-wing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). The typical rotor-wing UAVs are primarily micro, small or tactical systems or platforms (e.g., Skeldar V-150, Ultra, DJI Mavic 2 Pro). These systems usually require one operator who acts as both pilot and sensor operator or a crew of two with a platform operator and the other the sensor operator. Regarding the two-person crew configuration, a UAV sensor operator is positioned next to the rotor-wing UAV operator or pilot at a static or mobile Ground Control Unit (GCU) with a workstation managing both flight, sensor, and data-link operations.

    Having to do with sensors, rotor-wing Airborne Sensor Operators operate active or passive sensors. The standard active sensors used by sensor operators are Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR), and sonar. The usual passive sensors ASOs use are electro-optical/ infrared (EO/IR), Hyper-spectral, RGB cameras, Thermal cameras, magnetometers, and communication/signal receivers.

    Besides the different platforms and sensors that Airborne Sensor Operators use, operators routinely work with various other basic aircraft systems. These systems include emergency, navigation, radios, intercoms, and ground support equipment. Additionally, ASOs regularly work with many types of post-flight data processing hardware and software systems.


    Because of the ASO’s Achilles Heel, training possibilities for rotor-wing Airborne Sensor Operators are either informal or formal. Informal programmes include on-the-job training with limited classroom training and immersion with current operations. This training usually takes place in-house of established commercial Aerial Work companies or training organizations. Formal training consists typically of initial training and advanced training programmes. Additionally, defence organisations, law enforcement departments and OEMs provide formal training programmes alongside a limited number of commercial training firms.

    The length of each type of training programme is based on the complexity of the duties required, systems, and the resources available. For example, informal training usually takes several days to weeks, while formal training programmes take several months to one year.

    At a minimum, a rotor-wing Airborne Sensor Operator should have the knowledge or training to operate in the flight environment effectively, operate sensors and provide a usable product to the end user. The following knowledge areas define the baseline of a proficient Airborne Sensor Operator:

    • Theory of Rotor-Wing Flight and Aeronautics

    • Meteorology

    • Manned & Unmanned Aircraft Systems & Capabilities

    • Aerial Navigation

    • Radio & Communication Operations

    • Flight & Airfield Operations and Procedures

    • Crew Resource Management (CRM) and Human Factors (HF)

    • Electro-Magnetic Spectrum

    • Passive Sensor Systems & Capabilities

    • Active Sensor Systems & Capabilities

    • Sensor Operations and Maintenance

    • Mission Planning & Mission Management

    • Processing, Exploitation, and Dissemination Systems & Capabilities 

    Types of ASO Rotor-Wing Operations

    Undoubtedly, ASOs have their hands in many specialised rotor-wing operations. The specific rotor-wing industry sectors that require Airborne Sensor Operators are varied. Commercial surveying, science, public safety, and defence are primary sectors. Most Airborne Sensor Operators either work for specific government organisations, or aerial surveying-imaging firms which specialise in data acquisition and processing and deal directly with the end user.

    However, here are some of the leading rotor-wing operations ASOs support every day:

    Airborne Law Enforcement

    Like many rotor-wing law enforcement Pilots, Tactical Flight Officers (a.k.a, ASO or TFO) are sworn officers, constables and deputies recruited from within their department or agency to become aircrew members. The TFO executes the law enforcement mission onboard the aircraft, i.e., the ‘Mission Commander.’

    While the pilot is responsible for the aircraft’s safe operation, the TFO is the critical crewmember who links with ground units and coordinates with other public safety command centres simultaneously. Besides managing air-toground communications, TFOs also manage or operate a vast array of specialised sensor systems and capabilities onboard the aircraft. 

    Aerial Broadcasting

    In the news, weather, and sporting event reporting world, Aerial Broadcasting ASOs support or provide services to the ENG (Electronic News Gathering) sector of the broadcasting industry. Electronic News Gathering is when journalists and media networks use electronic video and audio technologies to gather and present news either within a news station or outside the station.

    When Aerial Broadcaster ASOs are on the scene, be it a ‘Breaking News’ event or covering a professional golf tournament, the ASO, besides operating their camera, is probably juggling six different tasks at once. These tasks could include managing radio frequencies, continuously communicating with media network ground sites, studio technicians, and even news sportscasters.

    Besides this, the ASO must maintain its airmanship discipline to ensure every flight doesn’t turn into the next ‘Breaking News’ Because most Aerial Broadcasting flights are conducted at low altitudes and speeds, ASOs must act with their crew to maintain the correct position, control, and avoid obstacles — especially high-voltage power lines and migrating birds.

    The work conditions of an Aerial Broadcasting rotorwing ASO consist of working irregular hours. Breaking news waits for no one, and ASOs and their crew must be on the scene as soon as possible when it breaks. On the plus side, the binding experience between ASOs and their fellow crewmates can be extraordinary. 

    Aerial Search & Rescue

    In Aerial Search & Rescue (SAR), mere minutes or seconds can mean the difference between life and death. In the case of Search & Rescue ASOs, the ability to work under pressure and against the clock is essential. What is the crew profile of a SAR rotor-wing ASO? 

    Because there is a variety of SAR operations or tasks, there is a variety of professional skill sets an ASO might have regarding particular SAR helicopter operations.

    For example, sea rescue ASOs require knowledge of maritime operations. In addition, combat rescue ASOs have a solid grasp of Special Operation tactics. Finally, urban SAR ASOs require the skill to find missing persons, survey a metropolitan natural disaster, and more.

    Besides specialised training for the aforementioned specific SAR ASO tasks, the common knowledge or training SAR helicopter ASOs is expected to have or acquire includes:

    • Helicopter Safety/Crew Resource Management (CRM)

    • Helicopter Ground Handling (e.g., refueling, marshaling, etc.)

    • Helicopter Emergency and Crash Procedures (To include underwater egress training)

    • SAR Management Processes (e.g., Command & Control, Regulations, Policy, etc.)

    • Specialisation in SAR Sub-Fields (e.g., Mountain Rescue, Urban Rescue, etc.)

    • Specialisation in SAR Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures 

    Aerial Powerline Inspection and Repair

    Matched with other types of aircrew members in commercial aviation and even in the Aerial Work aviation community, the ASOs flying helicopters ensure the world’s electrical grid is working around the clock because of their unique skills and capabilities.

    Primarily for powerline inspecting and surveying, Airborne Sensor Operators are responsible for managing the complete inspection or data collection process, i.e., from planning, aerial collection (operating onboard sensors), identifying issues regarding powerlines, and data processing.

    The training and experience powerline ASOs have are Aerial inspection fundamentals, specialised sensor operations (e.g., Corona Cameras, EO/IR, etc.), and data processing, exploitation, and reporting protocols.

    The Future of the Rotor-Wing ASO

    Today, with the expansion of smaller and more powerful remote sensing systems, data processing software, and smaller manned and unmanned rotor-wing platforms, the airborne remote sensing industry is expanding in line with many other industry sectors. In the past, the Aerial Work rotor-wing sector could not afford the analog age technology in terms of cost and weight. However, with this transition from an analogy to a digital technology world, the Airborne Sensor Operator profession has expanded along with it, i.e., the never-ending need for ever more precision information.

    Without a doubt, technology is expanding at a rapid pace. Therefore, the need for a dedicated rotor-wing crewmember to manage this technology is also critical. With this, the ASO rotor-wing career field will grow and expand positively. Who knows, way into the future, with aircraft automation capabilities getting more sophisticated, Airborne Sensor Operators and the Pilot position could blend into one. Again, who knows, but it is something to contemplate?

    Now you know!

    The Airborne Sensor Operator profession may not be well recognised like other professions or regulated crew positions. Still, it’s a living and growing career field, especially in the Aerial Work rotor-wing sector. To prove my point, search for ‘Airborne Sensor Operator’ job vacancies, and you’ll see many openings.

    If your curiosity is still piqued and you want to know more about this aircrew profession, only one organisation focuses purely on the universal ASO career field. This organisation is the Airborne Sensor Operators Group (ASOG) association. The ASOG aims to improve aviation safety and the ASO profession by promoting standards, education, and professional development. Along with this, the association promotes the safe, coordinated, and effective use of aerial remote-sensing capabilities for individual aircrew members, aviation, public service, industries, and society. 

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