This is National Drone Safety Awareness Week, and I would like to take the opportunity to discuss how Skyward, A Verizon company, supports drone safety. Last week marked my 19th Veteran’s Day in the Navy. I spent the majority of my active service as an instructor at Nuclear Power School and as counsel to submariners. I will take a look at safety lessons from the Navy’s “Silent Service” that are also reflected in Skyward’s safety culture.

Risks in the early days of submarines and aviation

As with submarines, aviation is an inherently dangerous activity. The early days of submarines and aviation are filled with stories of daring and pioneering operations. But as the Navy introduced nuclear submarines under Admiral Hyman Rickover, safety became ingrained in the culture. As an instructor at the Navy Nuclear Power School, we also studied the safety lessons learned from accidents during the early days of jet aviation.

The Navy had its own tragic accident, that of the USS THRESHER (SSN-753). During underwater sea trials on April 10, 1963, the ship experienced an unplanned reactor shutdown. Within 20 minutes she was lost with all hands. The accepted theory is that a faulty material failed, and the crew could not regain control. The SUBSAFE program was implemented to ensure quality in all materials used in American submarines. To this day, no SUBSAFE-certified boat has been lost. It also impressed upon the Submarine Force the need for decisive, informed actions based on intense training and unfailing integrity.

Safety in the nuclear Navy — and commercial drone operations

Following his retirement, Admiral Rickover testified to Congress on the incident at Three Mile Island. He said people “expect that I have a simple, easy gimmick that makes my program function.” However, a successful, safe program relies upon interconnected elements and not on simple answers or check-off lists. The following are some of his observations, and how I would relate them to drone safety.

Detect potential risks

One critical safety element of the nuclear Navy is that “individuals who make the decisions [must be] trained in the technologies involved.” This allows for detection of a problem. One cannot detect unsafe situations if they do not understand the technology or rules for their operation. For the same reason, training is critical for success in the drone industry. It is unsafe just to open a new drone, charge it, and go fly. That’s why Skyward’s software and services help drone pilots identify and mitigate risks.

Estimate the need to react

There must be “infinite attention to the technical details” so one can estimate the need to react. One processes these details through “knowledge, logic, common sense, and hard work.” Skyward’s solutions provide a drone operator with access to information so one is aware of the need to react to an unsafe situation.

Choose a course of action

Admiral Rickover observed that “The human inclination to hope that things will work out … can affect you in subtle ways, particularly when you have spent a lot of time and energy on a project.” In most cases, enterprise drone operations have been nurtured by a small group of people passionate about drones. This can make tough decisions difficult, but hard data provided by Skyward can make that decision easier. 

Identify solutions

Over half of Admiral Rickover’s testimony focused on training. Just as Skyward provides technical solutions, we have a training program so operators know how to identify solutions and minimize risk. The Navy has steamed more than 160 million miles over 6,900 reactor-years of operation without an accident. I never once felt my family or I were at risk from the reactors in port. Our goal is that Skyward’s customers can feel the same way about the drone operations we support.

Do the necessary actions

Admiral Rickover recognized that institutions tend to delegate responsibility and developed what he called the concept of “total responsibility.” If one person doesn’t have ultimate responsibility for an operation, it is inherently unsafe. In the drone world, the Remote Pilot in Command (RPIC) is the one ultimately responsible for safe operations. Skyward cannot, and does not want to, supplant the role of the RPIC. We are leveraging Verizon’s networks to ensure RPICs have the data necessary to command complex operations. We look forward to a future where the FAA approves operations based on these connected tools.

Evaluate the effects of these actions

We are pushing standards for drone operations forward. We have commented on every major drone rule proposed by the FAA and are committed to supporting standards development. When Admiral Rickover stood up the Nuclear Propulsion program, “there were no standards, design guides, or codes available. They had to be developed…to provide a warship that can be relied upon to perform its mission, and return.” We are working with the FAA and standards bodies to develop standards for cellular command and control. 

Risk management for drones and nuclear submarines

Admiral Rickover recognized that “nuclear power is a very difficult subject…it is vital that the decision be made in the basis of fact, not rhetoric, not conjecture or hope, or as a result of the widespread tendency to sensationalize the current topic and ignore the real limits of risks of the alternative.” Skyward shares this belief as it applies to drones. We will continue to advocate for safe and complex drone operations.

Pilots certified in the US, including Part 107 drone pilots, should recognize this post was framed on the FAA’s risk management principles using the DECIDE model. Skyward supports well-informed Safety Risk Management for drone operations and equips operators with the tools necessary to make safe decisions. 

During this Drone Safety Awareness Week, in the shadow of Veteran’s Day last week, this post is dedicated to the brave Veterans of this Nation, particularly those of the USS THRESHER who remain with her on eternal patrol.

Naval Submarine Base New London by drone
Naval Submarine Base New London by drone – the “First and Finest Submarine Base” along the Thames River, Connecticut