In the aftermath of a natural disaster, drones can be critical tools for first responders and recovery workers. As an eye in the sky, drones provide situational awareness that helps response teams target critical locations even when roads are blocked and areas remain dangerous.

At the same time, putting drones in the sky around a disaster presents challenges. Other emergency aircraft may be flying in the same airspace. Weather conditions may be uncertain. Flight crews may be fatigued, and national media attention may be focused on the area. It’s not a time you can afford to have things go wrong.

That’s why professional drone programs use checklists before every flight. Checklists reduce human error and promote safer, standardized flights, even in high-pressure situations. Whether you’re an electrical utility restoring power, a telecom reestablishing communications, or a media outlet covering the story, checklists are a critical step to being part of the solution — not adding to the problem.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when creating checklists for disaster recovery scenarios.

Drone Checklists in Skyward   Drone Checklists in Skyward InFlight

Start a checklist in Skyward’s web app and complete it in the field with InFlight, Skyward’s mobile app.

1) Create a system of custom checklists

In the rapid pace of disaster response, no pilot has time to complete a checklist fifty items long. The best drone programs use a series of smaller checklists — not one long one. Items that must be completed from base camp are separated from onsite procedures. The items included should make sense for exactly the task at hand, which means your pilots will be less tempted to skip steps.

For most operations at Skyward, we use the following checklist system:

  • Mission Planning Checklist — completed once per operation from the office. This includes sub-checklists such as a packing list.
  • Preflight Checklist — completed once per operation to secure the site and equipment. This is repeated if we relocate during the same operation.
  • Takeoff Checklist — short list completed before every flight.
  • Thru-flight Checklist — very light checklist completed between flights from the same site.
  • Postflight Checklist — completed once per site per operation. This ensures our equipment and data make it safely back to the office with us.

When it comes to special circumstances like disaster relief, you’ll also need special-use checklists:

  • Special Operations Checklists — for operating in unusual circumstances or under a waiver.
  • Incident Response Checklists — what to do in the event of an unexpected landing, damage, or other problem scenario.

Pro tip: Make sure you customize your drone checklists for company policies and local regulations. This helps crews follow standard flight procedures that include federal, local, and internal corporate policies.

2) Consider location for each set of checklists

Location is critically important during disaster response. If your crew shows up at the scene of a disaster only to discover checklist items that had to be completed before deployment, it’s too late. Checklists that aren’t location specific can cause more than just delays and major frustration — it could mean you lose a crucial opportunity to help.

For each set of checklists you create, carefully consider where the user will be standing when they use it. Items like charging your controller and packing the right equipment need to be checked off before deployment, not during pre-flight procedures in the field.

Pro tip: When creating a checklist system, follow an order of operations that quickly alerts your crew to major “No-Gos” first. You’ll want to know if there’s a new temporary flight restriction (TFR) or changing weather as early as possible.

In disaster scenarios, conditions can change rapidly. Right now, with wildfires burning in many parts of California, the FAA is establishing TFRs as needed. Never fly in a Temporary Flight Restriction without explicit permission from the controlling agency. Doing so can interfere with lifesaving aircraft operations — and result in significant penalties for you.

California Wildfire TFRs in Skyward
In Skyward, restricted areas are shown in red, including wildfire TFRs — don’t fly here!


3) Keep checklists short and clear

Disaster zones have fluid conditions. Your checklists can’t cover every possible what-if — and they shouldn’t try to. Overreliance on checklists may mean pilots don’t respond quickly in unclear situations, such as in an in-flight emergency.

Pilots tend to use concise, specific language. Be as brief and clear as possible. Aim to keep checklists to a length that an experienced pilot can complete in five minutes or less. You want to hit the sweet spot between safety and efficiency.

Trust that your drone pilots are competent in the basics. If a pilot isn’t comfortable flying without constant policy reminders, consider providing additional training.

4) Go digital, but have paper backups

Digital checklists are preferable to physical ones in most circumstances.

  • They create a system of accountability. Managers can easily track how checklists are being used in the field.
  • They’re convenient. They can live on the same tablet as your ground control system — one less thing to keep track of during rapid response. 
  • They’re simple to update. No need to reissue slips of paper every time you tweak an item.
  • They can capture data. Adding data points to checklists, such as wind speed measurements, can help you track factors that lead to unexpected flight performance.

Digital is best, but if your tablet battery runs down or you can’t connect to the internet, you may need to go old school. Have physical backup checklists in case electronic versions aren’t available. Consider printing out and laminating essential checklists to have on hand in your drone kits.

Checklists in Skyward’s Drone Management Platform

Skyward’s Drone Management Platform integrates checklists into each operation. These checklists are digital, customizable, and can be started in the office and completed in the field. It’s one more way Skyward helps our customers responsibly deploy drones in response to natural disasters.

Read a case study to find out how Skyward customer Southern Company deployed drones to help restore power after a hurricane and saved months of downtime.