What Does it Take to be an Airborne Sensor Operator?

When someone says “Aviation Career” you think of Pilot, Flight Attendant, Aircraft Mechanic – right? Here’s one lesser known aviation career – Airborne Sensor Operator! Some would say they’re the Shadow Crew members of aviation...

AvBuyer  |  23rd August 2019
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    Airborne Sensor Operator AvBuyer

    So, what is an Airborne Sensor Operator? 

    An Airborne Sensor Operator (ASO) is the profession of an individual participating in an aircraft or an unmanned aircrew gathering information from an airborne platform (manned or unmanned) for academic, commercial, public safety or military remote sensing purposes. The airborne sensor operator, when participating in any flight activity, is a principle flight crew or aircrew member. 

    The primary responsibilities of an airborne sensor operator are to ensure the safe operation of the aircraft, effectively operate assigned remote sensing systems and support the processing, exploitation, and dissemination of collected information. 

    Some of the general duties of an airborne sensor operator are: 

    • Flight and sensor planning,
    • Flight & crew management
    • Sensor Operations
    • Processing, exploitation, and dissemination of acquired data
    • Sensor installation, testing & maintenance
    • Collection management
    • Quality Control (QC) of acquired data 

    Besides the full time ASOs, there are many part-time ASOs (ASO as a secondary profession). Usually, these ASOs are researchers, students, real estate agents, photographers, archaeologists, etc. who participate in flight activities and leverage remote sensors to fulfil their primary jobs. No matter what, they’re part of the standards of being a crewmember. 

    Is this a new career field? 

    Not at all! The modern airborne sensor operator profession began in 1858 when Gaspard- Felix Tournachon “Nadar” first took aerial photographs of Paris from a hot air balloon. Remote sensing and airborne sensor operator duties continued to grow from there; one of the first planned uses of remote sensing and operators occurred during the U.S. Civil War when manned and unmanned balloons flew over enemy territory with cameras. 

    The first governmental-organized air photography missions were developed for military surveillance during World Wars I and II but reached a climax during the Cold War. 

    However, the Airborne Sensor Operator profession developed ever so more in all industry sectors during these decades with the advancement of unmanned air vehicles, radar, lasers, radio/signal receivers, and electro-optical/infra-red technology. 

    Why lesser known? 

    It’s all about priorities. Because Airborne Sensor Operators are not in direct control of primary aircraft operations and systems like a pilot (or navigators and flight engineers back in the analog days), civil government authorities haven’t spent much time highlighting or regulating this career field which in-turn effects the level of attention in and around the aviation industry.

    However, military and public safety organizations around the world have done a good job establishing standards and career designations for ASOs, but they’re only within their secluded silos and not part of any global or international recognized classification. Even though it’s a lesser known career field, it doesn’t mean the importance of that job is any less important. ASOs carry the same responsibilities as other crewmembers when it comes to the safety and accomplishment of any given flight event or operation. 

    Is it still a relevant career field? 

    Absolutely! Today, with the advancement of smaller and more powerful remote sensing systems, data processing software and smaller manned and unmanned platforms, the airborne remote sensing industry is expanding in line with many other expanding industry sectors that in the past could not afford or try to apply this capability. With this, the airborne sensor operator profession continues to expand and support the need for ever more precision information. 

    How do you become an ASO? 

    The training avenues for Airborne Sensor Operators are either informal or formal. Informal programs consist of on-the-job-training with limited classroom training and immersion with current operations. Informal training usually takes place in-house of established commercial airborne surveying & imaging firms or academic organizations. Formal training routinely consists of initial training and advance training programs.

    Formal training programs are primarily provided by defense organizations, law enforcement departments and by a limited number of commercial training firms for a fee. The length of each type of training avenue is based on the complexity of the duties required, systems, and the resources available. Informal training usually takes from several days to several weeks while formal training programs take several weeks to one year.

    What are the work conditions of an ASO? 

    Airborne Sensor Operators work in all kinds of conditions, so it depends on what industry sector one works. In general, the working conditions get better as an operator gains experience and can have a larger, wider choice of who they fly for and what sort of flying that agency or company does. 

    The working conditions vary from working for a regional aerial surveying firm on a part- time base to working full-time in a large organization where you have a career path and other additional duties. 

    Most Airborne Sensing Operators have a variable work schedule, working several days on and several days off based on tasking, availability of assets, and weather. A large percentage of sensor operators spend a considerable amount of time away from home because of the diverse locations of collection areas.

    When airborne sensor operators are away from home, the agencies or companies provide lodging accommodations, transportation between lodging and the airfield or launch/recovery location, and an allowance for meals and other expenses. Remote Sensing organizations operate flights at all hours of the day and night, so work schedules often are irregular. 

    Can you make a good living? 

    Yes, you can. Sensor operators are paid hourly in smaller firms and a salary in larger organizations. Benefits are rare but offered at the larger agencies or companies. Average pay is $20 to $30 an hour, and the average salary for Airborne Sensor Operator jobs is $41,000 to $54,000. However, the average Airborne Sensor Operator hourly wages or salaries can vary greatly due to company, location, industry, experience, and benefits. 

    Where can I go to find out more about the ASO profession? 

    There’s only one organization which focuses purely on the universal ASO career field. The organization is the Airborne Sensor Operators Group (ASOG). ASOG started back in 2016, and its charter is to improve the ASO profession by promoting standards, education and professional development to enable the safe, coordinated and effective use of aerial remote-sensing capabilities for the individual aircrew members, aviation, public service, industries, and society in general.

    Additionally, there are other great associations (e.g., Airborne Public Safety Association, Association of Old Crows, etc.) that recognize the ASO, but it’s not their core focus. If you’re interested in learning more, start with ASOG at www.aso-group.ning.com and join the network. 

    So now you know! 

    The Airborne Sensor Operator profession might not be well known like other professions, but it’s truly a living and breathing career field. If you don’t believe me, search for “Airborne Sensor Operator” jobs, and you’ll see many opportunities. 

    About the Author: Patrick Ryan 

    Patrick brings over 30 years of experience helping government & business aviation organizations plan & execute manned & unmanned C4ISR and Aerial Surveying & Mapping operations. Most recently, he spearheaded the start-up of the Airborne Sensor Operators Group (ASOG) and served as the Director of European, Middle East, and Africa Operations at R4 Incorporated.

    Before becoming a Senior Consultant, Patrick led operations for aerial C4ISR projects in Africa for EG&G, the leading government services company. Other roles have included Chief of U.S. European Command Joint Reconnaissance Center (JRC) for Europe & Africa, standup of the first RQ-4 GLOBAL HAWK squadron as Deputy Commander & Deployed Commander and led numerous Joint & Coalition planning & remote-sensing flight crews for contingency operations around the world. Patrick received his B.S. from California State University Fresno and an M.A. from the University of Oklahoma.

    For further information contact Patrick Ryan: pryan@aso-group.org 


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