What is a Multi-Mission Aircraft?

What are the primary aircraft flown today in Multi-Mission operations, and how do they differ from General Aviation and commercial air transportation platforms? Patrick Ryan explores this question and more.

Patrick Ryan  |  23rd March 2020
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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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    Helicopter equipped for aerial inspection of power lines

    What defines a Multi-Mission aircraft? What makes manned and unmanned aircraft ideal for the roles they fulfil? Patrick Ryan explores...

    When it comes to which pillar of aviation (General Aviation, Commercial Air Transportation, and Multi-Mission) utilizes the most types of aircraft in the world, Multi-Mission operations wins hands-down since these have leveraged, and continue to leverage the many different types of aircraft designs or classifications that make-up the entire spectrum of the aircraft world.

    And the introduction of unmanned technology and platforms has expanded three-fold the depth and width of Multi-Mission platforms available or used in providing specialized aerial services around the world.

    Defining Aircraft and Type Classifications

    To answer what a Multi-Mission aircraft is, the following should provide a refresher for some and new information for others. In a simple description, an airplane (manned or unmanned) is a vehicle that can fly by gaining support from the air. It counters the force of gravity by using either static lift or by using the dynamic lift of an airfoil.

    The primary factors that categorize the different types of aircraft are ‘Heavier-Than-Air’ (Aerodyne) and ‘Lighter-Than-Air’ (Aerostat) aircraft.

    The next level of classifying is powered and unpowered aircraft. From this point, aircraft designs, technology, and capabilities differ in many different aspects and categories.

    FIGURE A: Aircraft Classifications

    As you can see on Figure A, aircraft types take-on their unique technical characteristics (i.e., from Kite to Balloon; Fixed-Wing to Rotary-Wing, Amphibian, or Float; Propeller Propulsion to Rocket Propulsion; Tethered or Non-Tethered; Manned and Unmanned, and more).

    What is a Multi-Mission Aircraft?

    In general, a civil Multi-Mission aircraft is an aircraft used for any specialized service other than General Aviation and Commercial Air Transportation. Centered on Figure A, a Multi-Mission aircraft can be any aircraft, from a Kite with a camera to a Boeing 747 configured with a telescope.

    Essentially, it all comes down to the intent of the operator, compensation, and how local Civil Aviation Authorities perceive, define, or regulate it. If an aircraft is designed, modified, or just used to accomplish a specific task or service (other than for general transportation or recreation), it can be considered a Multi-Mission aircraft.

    Why are so Many Different Aircraft Types Used in Multi-Mission Operations?

    Simple, civil Multi-Mission operations have more diverse tasks than General Aviation and commercial air transportation. Overall, General Aviation and commercial air transportation is primarily focused on transporting people, luggage and cargo from point A to point B.

    Multi-Mission operations go beyond just transporting, to conducting various specialized dull, dirty and sometimes dangerous data collection or utility task (e.g., Glider Towing, Aerial Mapping and Surveying, Aerial Firefighting, Aerial Lift Services, Flight Training, Aerial Targets, etc.). Because of this, the civil Multi-Mission industry sector is very innovative and adaptable when it comes to matching the right aircraft to a specific task or service.

    In other words, one size doesn't fit all for this industry sector, and for a good reason.

    Since the needs and wants of humanity are diverse, physical nature is fluid, and technology is continually changing and resources are not endless, the civil Multi-Mission industry sector has a culture of constantly experimenting with different platforms to fulfill a new or existing need in society, or supporting a specific industry sector with the right level of effort, technology, investment and return.

    An example of this is Aerial Advertisement.

    In the 1930s and with the world fascinated by this new thing called ‘Airplanes’, small fixed-wing aircraft were used to tow banners for advertisement purposes. Over the last 80 years, as different classes of aircraft developed and advertising evolved, Aerial Advertisement expanded to Airships, Kite Balloons, and Rotary Wing aircraft.

    Today, both manned and unmanned platforms are employed in this business sector to provide Mobile billboards, Banner Towing, Flogos and Skywriting.

    What are the General Differences Between Today's Manned & Unmanned Multi-Mission Aircraft?

    The obvious technical answer would be an aviator controlling the platform onboard or offboard the vehicle to accomplish a specific service other than transporting people or cargo.

    Even though both can, or have, leveraged the different classes of aircraft designs or technology, across today's Multi-Mission aircraft market the general difference between these two types of aircraft are as follows:

    Size & Weight: The size and weight of the ordinary civil Multi-Mission unmanned aircraft can range from 51cm to 2m in size, with weights between 5kg to 50kg.

    By contrast, the size and weight of the average civil Multi-Mission manned aircraft can range from a parking area size of 300sq.ft. to 8,000sq.ft., with Max Takeoff Weights (MTOW) between less than 12,500lbs and up to 41,000lbs.

    Operating Procedures: Take-off and Landing operations and locations are more decentralized with civil Multi-Mission unmanned aircraft while manned Multi-Mission aircraft tend to require a centralized infrastructure of airfields or approved landing locations.

    However, unmanned Multi-Mission aircraft routinely operate Line-of-Sight (LOS) of the operator and the take-off/landing location, while manned Multi-Mission aircraft operate Beyond-Line-of-Sight (BLOS) of any usable airfield or operating location.

    Overall, today's civil unmanned aircraft are dependent on radio links/frequencies for command and control of the vehicle while manned aircraft are not.

    Cost: The cost of purchasing, operating and sustaining an unmanned Multi-Mission aircraft vs. a manned aircraft can be substantial. The cost of operating a manned Multi-Mission aircraft is higher.

    For example, the average cost to purchase an unmanned aircraft designed to conduct aerial photography or surveying operations can start around $5,000 while buying a manned (fixed-wing, single-engine) aircraft starts at around $300,000.

    Besides the difference in purchase cost, there is a difference between ancillary equipment and systems, storage, fuel, maintenance-inspection, insurance, and manpower to operate.

    Even though there are some significant differences between today's manned and unmanned Multi-Mission aircraft, the good thing is that the differences mitigate the "one size fits all" solution regarding Multi-Mission operations and the industry as a whole.

    With this, the specific performance advantages of both manned and unmanned Multi-Mission aircraft can be leveraged to produce the right result.

    What are the Performance Advantages of Today's Manned Multi-Mission aircraft?

    As with unmanned aircraft, manned Multi-Mission aircraft provide their own unique operating and performance solution to accomplish a specific task which other aircraft configurations can't effectively accomplish or don't have the right "Cost to Benefit" ratio to operate.

    Considering the mainstream types of manned aircraft on today's market (like Super Cubs, Cessna C-172s, Diamond DA-42s, EC-135, Dash-7s and more), some of the general performance advantages these aircraft have over current available commercial unmanned vehicles are:

    • Higher: They have the performance and routine access to established airspace
    • Faster: They have the speed to travel a long distance in a shorter period
    • Wider: They have a wider area of operation or coverage, and the means to travel to multiple distant operating locations in a single flight operation
    • Heavier: They have a better payload and power-generating capability.

    What are the Performance Advantages of Today's Unmanned Multi-Mission Aircraft?

    Interestingly, the performance advantages of today's civil professional unmanned Multi-Mission aircraft are, in many aspects, the opposite of manned aircraft. They now fill a gap in areas that manned Multi-Mission aircraft cannot reach.

    Some of the general performance advantages of unmanned Multi-Mission aircraft (like the DJI - Mavic 2, Intel - Falcon 8+System (pictured below), Censys - Sentaero v2VTOL, Blimpworks Airships - Aeroblimp-23) are:

    • Lower: They have the agility to operate closer to objects on the earth’s surface
    • Slower: They have the velocity to either go fast-and-short or slow-and-long in a specified period
    • Narrower: They have a narrower area of operation or coverage, and the means to operate in very localized/enclosed spaces
    • Lighter: They can carry smaller precision payloads for specialized tasked without excess delivery support (i.e., less aircraft, more kit).

    In Summary

    As you can see, Multi-Mission aircraft are in a class of their own. Because there's more to this sector of aviation than just transporting people and luggage, the stakeholders of Multi-Mission aviation have leveraged pretty much every type of aircraft from unmanned tethered balloons to manned high-altitude jet aircraft to accomplish a specific or unique task.

    The reason for this is that the different types of aircraft used today have different operational and performance capabilities. When it comes to manned and unmanned platforms, the differences can be substantial.

    However, the difference is a benefit to the Multi-Mission sector. This diversity of technologies allows for a better ‘fit to purpose’ solution.

    As for the future, the basic technology of aircraft (fixed-wing, rotor, lighter-than-air) might not change, but other components, elements, sub-systems, and operating procedures will.

    With technology moving at a quick pace and the innovative spirit many have in the Multi-Mission aviation sector, we'll naturally see some of today's operating differences and advantages of the various Multi-Mission aircraft change. Again, this is a good thing for the Multi-Mission aircraft community and the world.

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