Inspection and Maintenance is Key to Drone Safety

Robotic Skies provides certification and maintenance services for commercial drones.
The recent sUAS NPRM from the FAA along with the proposed updates for current Section 333 exemption holders, will likely result in a surge in commercial sUAS. As for the UAS themselves, the NPRM or section 333 exemptions do not propose any requirements for airworthiness or for inspections by a certificated repairman. As a manned and unmanned aviation maintenance professional, I was initially taken aback by this. However, the commercial marketplace (including drone insurance policies) will likely set standards that are more stringent than any regulations would set forth – as we’ve seen in manned aviation.

Although specific requirements for ongoing inspections, maintenance, and repairs may not be required, there are many reasons why businesses should include these important pieces in their operations. Safety and economic efficiency are two of the most important.

SAFETY

In aviation, be it manned or unmanned, “safety is paramount”. This statement was recently echoed by the former administrator of the FAA, Marion Blakely. Scheduled inspections and maintenance that follow a manufacturer’s recommendations form the foundation on which a good safety record is built. Operator training and proficiency is another key ingredient. Insurance companies that underwrite sUAS fleets will also require manufacturer recommended inspections and maintenance, supported by reliable documentation recorded in a system like Skyward.

The FAA’s reasoning on excluding airworthiness certificates from the NPRM is that, “…[the] current processes for issuing airworthiness and airman certificates were designed to be used for manned aircraft and do not take into account the considerations associated with civil small UAS.” The FAA is saying that the UAS industry requires special consideration, and they likely won’t make any requirements until they have more data and analysis.

It’s important to note that while the FAA has not yet outlined a formal maintenance program in the NPRM, the notion that airworthiness is a responsibility of the operator is very clearly articulated. Its paramount that any successful operation understand and follow maintenance procedures or connect with a trusted partner who can ensure drone fleets are properly inspected, repaired, and returned to service in airworthy condition.

A service-drone MULTIROTOR 1.4 Blackbird quadcopter on the Robotic Skies bench after completing post-maintenance operational checks before being returned-to-service and sent back to the customer.

 

ECONOMIC EFFICIENCY

Whether the FAA determines airworthiness is required or not, it doesn’t change the reality that these machines (like any other) need servicing and inspection. Safety is always first, but downtime for a machine also means it isn’t making money. The businesses operating drone fleets look at profitability, and they will not want their in-house unmanned operators – inspectors, engineers, adjusters – investing their time in work beyond routine field maintenance. Rather, like those assessing an injury, when something more than a simple bandage is required, fleet operators will seek out a specialist, and that is where the Robotic Skies network comes into play.

Proper UAV maintenance and inspections can avoid costly, or even total airframe losses, in the field. The demand of the marketplace is often the most efficient method of determining the proper level of maintenance and airworthiness. The more sUAS that are flying, the more maintenance they will require to stay airborne and profitable for their operators.

USI in Hangar

FAA-certified repairman and Robotic Skies maintenance technician Chris Haskell inspects a Sandstorm UAS built by Unmanned Systems Incorporated.

 

UAV MAINTENANCE RESOURCES

The Robotic Skies service center network is composed of independent maintenance and inspection “repair stations” that have earned FAA approval to inspect, maintain, and modify manned aircraft. At many technical and mechanical levels, the only real difference between manned and unmanned aircraft is where the pilot sits. Small UAS manufacturers have stated that they will require coverage and warranty services, and business operators have told us that they will need operational performance and maintenance standards, which the Robotic Skies’ service center network shops can affordably provide based on aviation best practices.

While the regulations and rules surrounding commercial UAS are certain to change and adapt as the technology advances, we can be sure that airworthiness and proper maintenance to maintain it, will always be a vital part of any aviation endeavor.

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