Question: What can the emergent commercial UAS Industry learn from 100 years of manned aviation?
Answer: A huge amount. All the answers for your drone business lie within best practice manned aviation principles.
Much of the emerging UAS community spends a lot of time trying not to draw parallels between manned and unmanned aviation. At the consumer level, focus on mass versus kinetic energy and probable harm that these systems can cause if flown in an anti-social or dangerous manner may seem like the most sensible or obvious argument. However, it is in fact a huge detriment to the really positive socio-economic impact that UAS technology can have on wider society.
Some of the best regulation to come out of the UK and Europe has seen a pragmatic ‘keep it simple, keep it safe’ attitude to integrating this new wave of airborne technology into the existing aviation infrastructure. In short, they (the manned machines) were there first and it is completely reasonable to expect us to adapt into this existing system and prove that we can do it safely. Given the incredible development of unmanned technology and capability that the military has seen, the perception was that larger UAS would come onto the scene faster than smaller unmanned aircraft. The military has also proven integration of both manned and unmanned aircraft notably over the battle space in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, it is the grassroots small consumer and commercial UAS where the commercialization has occurred. Small UAS have caught the publics’ imagination and are now proving themselves to be a positive influence on our society.
The penny has dropped that this technology will become ubiquitous in our daily lives in the not too distant future and can be a force for good. But, your small UAS is by no means autonomous (yet), and requires a good deal of human interface. The Unmanned in UAS is not strictly correct! The process of integration is iterative and starts with visual line of sight (VLOS) operations in civilian airspace as we are seeing proliferating today.
A question I am often asked is, “what do I need to support my newly acquired small UAS in order to safely operate it for commercial purposes?”
Over 4 years ago I sat down to write the first document (rather blandly called ‘Part A’) that was to become the first iteration of the standard operating procedures. This has since become a much heftier tome that is the Sky-Futures Operations Manual and now comprises Parts A-E. In my last piece I encouraged anyone wishing to get into this industry to embrace your regulator. In the same vein, I also believe it is important to look for best practice examples of systems, processes and initiatives that have benefited both the aviation industry and your target market. In our case, this is the global oil and gas market that we serve with our UAS technology. To build a both successful and scalable UAS business you have to give your clients every faith in the safety of your systems and the professionalism of the humans involved in this process. Your standard operating procedures (SOP’s) should provide Remote Pilots with the blueprint for your operations such that your UAS operations are conducted in exactly the same way using the same methods every time.
An Operations Manual is, like the industry, iterative. You have a mountain to climb initially but once the framework is built you can add flesh to the bones. In order to be ‘fit for purpose’ it requires regular updates and additions as you build your UAS offering. My background in aviation as a commercial airline pilot gave my business a head start as SOP’s, checklists and aviation process were inherently familiar. It is perhaps no coincidence though that a lot of crossover is beginning to occur from manned to the unmanned commercial space and for those entering this space. I would highly recommend finding someone familiar with manned aviation best practice to kick off this process. It is not rocket science but does require a good deal of hard work, thinking outside the box and some knowledge of what works well (and what doesn’t). There are also some companies setting up to provide regulatory services to the industry.
Whatever advice you take it is certainly recommended to develop a personal and deep understanding of what you want to achieve using your UAS and focus almost entirely on doing this as safely as possible. The important words in your operations manual will help you define this and hone your operational professionalism, instill confidence from your clients and keep you safer.