So, You Want a Safe and Efficient sUAS Operations Business?

Safety should not be the goal of a commercial or public small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) operating organization. That statement may seem counterintuitive or controversial – but bear with me for a moment.

The primary goal of a national regulator – such as the Federal Aviation Administration (U.S.), Civil Aviation Authority (U.K.) or Civil Aviation Safety Authority (Australia) – is to ensure safety in a way that encourages and enables the legitimate use of airspace. The goal of any business or agency that uses UAS is to provide value to customers or colleagues at a cost that allows a business to make or save money and an agency to operate within budget allowances.

Increasing productivity while lowering costs is the business of every non-recreational sUAS operator.

A failure of any kind can have a significant impact on your business’ ability to operate or be licensed. It can damage your reputation, drive up operating costs, cause loss of business or damage to your customer, or worse, cause injury to a person – which may be catastrophic to your UAS organization. Safety is the condition of being protected from harm and other non-desirable outcomes. So it’s clear that safety is a requirement for increasing productivity and lowering costs.

During my time as a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Navy, I learned that consistency, predictability and good information management (communication) are critical to ensuring successful execution and keeping people safe, even during highly stressful and unpredictable situations.

Is it dangerous to land a helicopter on a small warship? Yes. But it’s been done a countless number of times all over the world. I’ve done it myself hundreds of times. So what prevents mishap in 99.995% of cases?

High-reliability organizations (HROs) are organizations that conduct consistent, sustainable and low-error operations based on informed, high-quality decision-making and practices. Operating complex equipment – with large numbers of people involved and in adverse conditions – an HRO is able not only to avoid mishap but also to produce consistent results.

The aircraft

Consistency in the performance and function of your drones is essential for high-reliability operations. For aircraft that carry people, this is partially accomplished by the granting of a Certificate of Airworthiness (CofA). Rightfully so, the bar for obtaining a CofA is very high.

Because drones don’t carry people, are much lighter and fly more slowly than manned aircraft, national regulators generally don’t require a CofA for commercial or public UAS operations.

Does this mean that airworthiness is not important? Certainly not. It means that any business that flies drones commercially – from individual operators to major enterprises – is now the final guarantor of a drone’s airworthiness. That’s a significant responsibility and one that cannot be left to chance. While mechanically simple, drones are still aircraft. You should not expect an aircraft to be reliable if you don’t pay attention to airworthiness.

If you are in the beginning stages of establishing your operation, before you buy your UAS, here are some things you should consider:

  • What aircraft performance or functional requirements matter to your business?
  • What safety systems will you require?
  • Does the manufacturer provide support in the form of operating manuals, firmware updates and equipment repairs?
  • What specific makes and models will you operate?
  • Are there preferred suppliers?
  • Are spare parts readily available for the aircraft?

The flight deck: ground control station (GCS) environment

The modern flight deck has been designed to provide the optimum work environment for the on-board flight crew. A challenge for remote crews is to create a controlled work environment despite the fact that they may be operating in a wide variety of conditions. Do you have a method in place to ensure a relatively consistent ground control station environment?

The airport

Did you realize that each time you conduct a UAS takeoff and landing, you are creating an airport? An airport is any area of land or water used or intended for landing or takeoff of aircraft.

It would take many weeks of study to begin to understand the complexities involved in the engineering, design and construction of airports and the establishment and management of the airspace surrounding airports. The FAA guidance on the design of heliports alone is 188 pages.

You don’t need to go into that level of detail for most UAS operations, but at a minimum, you do need to consider the following factors: controlled airspace above the flight area; restricted airspace; nearby airports and heliports; sensitive areas on the ground, such as special security areas or national parks; obstructions to the aircraft’s flight path; obstructions to the visual line of sight from the GCS location to the aircraft; hazards to the aircraft in the takeoff and landing area; and unprotected people beneath the flight path of the aircraft.

Other UAS essentials

I’ve only covered the tip of the iceberg for launching commercial drone operations. Other equally important elements include minimum qualification standards for remote pilots; ensuring accountability and consistency in crew training; quality control procedures for data collection; pre-planned responses to accidents and incidents; risk mitigations for operations in special conditions, such as at night; and risk assessment methodology.

Creating a compliant UAS program

Even though a commercial or public drone operation may not be as dangerous as landing on a small warship at night, the potential consequences to the organization are real. Airspace regulations have the force of law: National aviation regulators have the authority to impose civil penalties, including fines or loss of privileges. UAS operating organizations need consistent methods of ensuring external compliance.

Many organizations have well established internal regulations set up by corporate risk managers and attorneys to protect the organization from operational losses and liability. UAS operating organizations must have consistent methods of ensuring internal compliance.

Establishing your sUAS ops culture

There’s a big difference between the “compliance training” videos on HR policies, information security and federal regulations that many of us are used to sitting through once a year and the type of ingrained culture necessary to ensure highly reliable and effective sUAS flight ops on a day-to-day basis under high-production pressures in the field.

Culture is a pattern of consistent observable patterns of behavior in organizations. HROs develop and maintain a culture that is sensitive to deviations from expected results, avoids explaining away complexity and is sensitive to the actual conditions in the field. Whether you are a one-person organization (a culture of one) or a large enterprise, your culture starts with you.

So how can a company – either a major corporation with multiple divisions or a one-person entity – jump-start the creation of an externally and internally compliant, high-reliability UAS ops organization and culture?

From relatively early in aviation history, aviators have depended on operating manuals and checklists to ensure safety and standardization. Every flight involves a series of complex processes that occur before launch, during the flight and after final landing, and they involve many individual actions – which means there’s lots of room for error.

During my time as a commercial sUAS operator, I’ve learned that there is a big difference between completing a checklist while sitting in a comfortable cockpit without any distractions and kneeling over a sUAS in the sun or in the cold. The conditions and the potential distractions actually make the checklist more important. But the checklist must be sensitive to operations and must be simple and usable under field conditions.

Your checklist should be a tool. A 7-lb. quadcopter is not an Apollo command module.

Keep it simple and focused on the most likely hazards, and remember that highly reliable UAS operations are a product of culture, not putting marks in boxes. For internal compliance purposes, some organizations may require documentation that a specific procedural item was completed. Use actual check boxes on the checklist for that purpose.

Here’s another trip: A general operating manual and operational checklists are the foundation of every successful sUAS program.

This is a company’s central guide to UAS operations. It provides a glossary of every function, piece of equipment and term; explains roles, responsibilities and safety protocols; provides policies for pilot training and equipment maintenance; and gives step-by-step instructions to create predictable, safe, standard results time after time.

Just as in traditional aviation, a UAS flight crew uses checklists for every step of an operation to ensure that all of the processes spelled out in the general operating manual are being carried out.

Even very small UAS operations need to keep track of aircraft maintenance, pilot assignments and paperwork. They also need to plan operations and keep good records for billing and audits. A well designed platform mitigates risks and protects assets, as well as enables optimal efficiency.

For example, if your company requires every flight crew to take a five-minute break upon the completion of a flight, you can add that to your checklist. And if a company operates in multiple airspace jurisdictions, a sUAS business operations guide can be customized to reflect different rules, as well.

This article is adapted from a blog by Tariq Rashid, lead remote pilot at Portland, Ore.-based Skyward, which provides a commercial drone operations management platform. Photo is also courtesy of Skyward.


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