Standard aviation practices are based on one key principle: people are flawed. A lot can go wrong due to human error. Faulty memory, unreliable senses, or a momentary lapse of attention can spell disaster in traditional aviation. That’s why checklists in drone operations are so important to flight crews.

Checklists help to reduce human error by giving pilots the same processes every single time. They help engines start correctly and rotors stay attached; checklists help us access airspace smoothly. And they’re part of the reason for traditional aviation’s good safety record.

There’s a lesson here for commercial drone operators: checklists should be a regular part of the workflow.

I work with Skyward’s Professional Services team to advise drone operators on following regulatory standards and best practices. With years of experience flying drones of all sizes, I’ve learned a few things about using checklists effectively. Here are five tips.

1. Create a variety of checklists for your drone operations

Don’t try to cram everything into one checklist. It will be too long for use on-site, and it may end up being ignored. Instead, create a system of checklists for various locations and scenarios.

For major 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.

In addition, we have several special-use checklists for particular circumstances:

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

This system helps us fly according to federal regulations and company policies. Most of the checklists take an experienced pilot as little as five minutes to complete, which helps us be safe and efficient.

Pro tip: when creating a checklist system, follow an order of operations that quickly alerts your crew to major “No-Go”s first. You’ll want to know if there’s a temporary flight restriction (TFR) or inclement weather as early as possible—hopefully before you leave the office.

2. Make sure checklists are location-specific

When taking their first stab at checklists, I’ve noticed that many customers don’t think of location. For example, a pilot may drive hours to a work site, set up, and begin to run through the preflight checklist only to discover items that have to be completed back in the office. This can cause major frustrations and delays. If not corrected, the drone crew may just ignore checklist items.

Consider where your feet are planted when creating a checklist. Again, creating a system of checklists with separate in-office and on-site lists can help. It will save you and your crew a headache.

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3. Keep checklists short and clear

The shorter the better. Pilots tend to use concise, specific language for a reason. Checklists don’t need to be dozens of items long, and complicated checklists tend to be ignored by field crews rushing to get the job done. 

This also means your checklists can’t—and shouldn’t—cover every possible contingency. Over-checklisting can reduce pilots’ effectiveness by turning them into robots who don’t respond well in unclear situations. Have confidence that an experienced drone pilot is competent in the basics. If a pilot isn’t comfortable flying without constant policy reminder, consider providing additional training.

4. Go digital whenever possible

Digital checklists have several advantages over physical checklists.

  1. Digital checklists create a system of accountability. Managers and executives can see whether checklists are actually being executed in the field.
  2. Digital checklists are easy to keep track of. They can live on the same tablet as your ground control system. Field crews already have enough equipment to worry about. 
  3. Digital checklists are easy to update. There’s no need to reissue slips of paper every time an item is tweaked.
  4. Digital checklists can require data entry. For example, if a checklist item calls for wind speed measurement with an anemometer, some digital checklists can require the crew to enter the measurement in order to check the box. This proves that a field crew is using the checklist, not just clicking through it—and provides historical data to improve processes.

5. Have physical backup checklists

Digital checklists have one major drawback: in the case of equipment failure—say, if your tablet fails mid-flight—your checklists may be inaccessible. Standard operating procedures might require you to run through an emergency checklist, but it doesn’t do any good if you can’t get to it.

Consider printing out and laminating essential checklists to have in your drone kit—at least your emergency procedures. Paper checklists might come in handy in a worst-case scenario.

Skyward can help

As part of an end-to-end solution for managing commercial drone operations, Skyward integrates checklists into our web and mobile platforms.

Risk managers in the office can create systems of checklists. Executives can assign lists to an operation. Field crews can complete checklists in InFlight, Skyward’s mobile ground control system. It’s all available in a simple, cloud-based system of record.If you’re looking for help creating or customizing checklists for your own operations, we’d love to help. Reach out to Skyward’s Professional Services. My colleagues and I can help you on your way to safe, successful drone operations.